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The parties taking place this week in conjunction with the NBA All-Star Game promise to be epic -- and while he's hardly the biggest name heading to town, DJ Clinton Sparks is the glue that'll hold three of the most widely anticipated bashes together. But spinning for celebrities as high-profile as P. Diddy and Jermaine Dupri is nothing new for Sparks. His forthcoming album, Maybe You Been Brainwashed, due from Koch Records on March 22, features collaborations with 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Lil' Flip, Joe Buddens, Method Man, Diddy and not one, but two dead people: the late Notorious B.I.G. and the more recently deceased Ol' Dirty Bastard.
That's pretty heady company for someone who up until just a few years ago made his living by acting like a clown on a radio station in his native Boston. So how did Sparks go from providing comic relief to producing songs for the music-biz elite?
"My work ethic is what keeps it goin'," he says in a townie accent thicker than anything heard in Good Will Hunting. "I'm never satisfied. I still feel I could be doin' more as I'm sittin' here right now."
Although he's now at home in a crowd, Sparks developed his musical jones in solitude. "I was, like, ten years old, and really had nothin' to do," he recalls. "I was in my room by myself a lot, so I just kinda got into music that way -- and I taught myself how to DJ on my mother's little Soundesign stereo. I'd hold the phono button down with my finger and press 'auxiliary,' and that would take the place of a crossfader." Long before mash-ups were trendy, "I'd cut everything from Tears to Fears to Twisted Sister to Prince to Michael Jackson to Grandmaster Flash," he says. "I'd take the Commodores, mix it with Run-DMC -- whatever."
Such eclecticism is still at the heart of Sparks's approach, and he's thrilled that more and more people are ignoring musical barriers that once seemed unbreachable. "Used to be if you dropped ŒWelcome to the Jungle,' by Guns N' Roses, into a hip-hop set, people would be like, 'What you playin' heavy metal for?' But now, people go, 'Whoa! That was hot!'" To him, "the best analogy is the cliques when you were in middle school. The jocks would hang with the jocks; the black kids would hang with the black kids; the headbangers would hang with the headbangers. Then, when you graduated, you realized that no matter what social group you were in when you were a kid, you were all on the same level -- and when you went to the high school reunion, you all got along. Same thing with music. No more of goin', 'This is our music. This is what we do, and we don't like that music over there.' It's like everybody grew up."
As Sparks did likewise, he became a performer, rapping and dancing well enough to win talent shows. He also honed his remixing skills, and became adept at pushing his efforts toward DJs at Boston radio stations. After a host from one of those outlets, WJMN, attended a party he emceed in the late '90s, Sparks was hired as a regular on the morning show. "I was like the stunt guy, the bit writer, the guy on the street who'd do all the stupid stuff and make everybody laugh," he says. "You know -- come up with funny names, make prank calls, that kinda thing."
These routines were fun to do, but Sparks still aspired to a full-time mixing gig, and when nothing at WJMN opened up, he targeted SupeRadio, a syndicator whose program ran on the station. "I kept contactin' them for a year, and they kept tellin' me, 'No, we don't need anyone new. We're all set. We're all set,'" he remembers. "So I found out where they were located, and I went down there and said, 'Hey, I'm Clinton Sparks. Please give me five minutes of your time. If I suck, you tell me, and I'll never bother you again. If I'm great, you just found a champion without even lookin'.' The guy was like, 'All right, cool, wait here' -- and I waited for like two hours. I think he even forgot I was there, 'cause when he came out, he was ready to leave. But I was still sittin' there, and he ended up listenin' to my mixes, and literally two minutes later, he was like, 'Can you start in two weeks?'"
Sparks debuted in ten markets, and in the years since then, the number has grown to forty. In addition, a WJMN rival, Hot 97/WBOT, finally gave him the local mix show he'd wanted. Today, he's heard live on Hot 97, plus stations in Connecticut and Baltimore, with a signal in North Carolina recently joining his roster, too. On top of that, he's got a four-hour weekly showcase on Shade 45, a channel on Sirius satellite radio overseen by Eminem. "It's in New York, and all the artists are right there, so they come in all the time," he says.
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