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The Hustler

Heating things up: Clinton Sparks.

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 Å’Welcome 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.

He's not exaggerating. His personal website, www.clintonsparks.com, offers audio testimonials from Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, the Neptunes' Pharrell, Mobb Deep's Prodigy and many other A-listers. Sparks got to know most of these rhymers during radio-station appearances, but, he says, "some of them were just me goin' up in studios, meetin' people, introducin' myself. There's a fine line between bein' persistent and aggravatin' someone. You've got to find that line, try to use those relationships to your benefit."

Luminaries turn up frequently on Sparks's mix tapes, which have received plenty of acclaim from the hip-hop intelligentsia (he was named new DJ of the year at the 2002 Mixtape Awards). For instance, The Pulling Strings Mixtape is introduced by Roc-A-Fella Records head Damon Dash and includes numbers such as "Ghetto," co-starring John Legend and Scarface, and "Fly Away," with Kanye West, Fabolous and Musiq Soulchild. Coast Control, Volume 1: Defend Your Borders, a mix tape shared by Sparks and Los Angeles-based DJ Warrior, is equally glitzy, spotlighting Jadakiss, the Clipse and the team of XL and the aforementioned Biggie Smalls; this last duo contributes to "I Like," which is slated for Brainwashed. When he's asked how he got his mitts on such a Notoriously rare commodity as the B.I.G. verses, Sparks says, "It's funny -- even some people at Bad Boy have been wonderin' that. They don't even know how it happened.

"When you get somethin' like that, you can't come half-assed, or do anything you don't think the artist woulda liked or wanted to be a part of if they were sittin' next to you," he goes on. "I try to do somethin' I think they would've moved on to if their artistry had kept evolvin'."

Getting the best out of living, breathing hip-hoppers often requires trickier techniques. "Sometimes the artists give me the vocals over a beat that's already out there, and I create a whole new song and put the vocals on that -- and they were never in the studio with me to do that song," he reveals. "And I excel at figurin' out what somebody would sound hot over. Sometimes the artist may not have the same vision as you, and they don't understand where you're tryin' to go with somethin'. But if they're not there, I can make something that's so hot, but maybe a little to the left, that they wouldn't get it right away. Then, when I put it out and they get such a great response, they go, 'Hey, man, why didn't you give me that track?' And I'll be like, 'Dude, I played you that beat three months ago, and you didn't like it!'"

Moxie like this will serve Sparks well in the entrepreneurial world -- the next territory he's looking to conquer. He recently signed a deal with Def Jam Mobile to create Scratch Tones, a cell-phone-friendly series of ringtones, ringbacks, greetings, screensavers and wallpaper. "Sooner or later this stuff'll get regulated," he says, "so right now, it's a great opportunity for artists to make a lot of money." He's just as enthused about www.mixunit.com, a website in which he's a partner. A redesign of the site, which should debut in about three months, is intended to turn it into what he calls "the hip-hop Amazon.com. We're about to revolutionize the way you can target and market the hip-hop lifestyle, demographically and geographically."

If these projects take off, Sparks could wind up hosting parties at a future All-Star game instead of manning the turntables. Still, he doubts that he'd be comfortable taking it easy. "If I'm not doin' somethin', I feel inadequate," he concedes. "I need to keep doin' it, keep doin' it, keep gettin' things done. A lot of DJs attemptin' to do what I do, they're like, 'I can't believe you do all that. How do you do all that?' And I'm like, 'If you get the opportunity, how can you not do all that?'"


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