DJ Clinton Sparks By Wendy Ragiste
Having already worked with the likes of Mobb Deep, P. Diddy, Fabolous and Eminem, Clinton Sparks is set for big things in 2005. The DJ/producer extraordinaire reveals the secrets to his success exclusively to The Situation.
Clinton Sparks is ready to expand beyond his DJ radio roots. His contribution to the industry and his prolific presence in the mixtape industry has not gone unnoted. Now, at 26, and armed with a new deal, he is making fresh waves. The first track from his debut album, ‘Run this City’ is a collaboration with P. Diddy and Miri Ben-Ari; a union which came about thanks to Sparks’ connections over at Bad Boy and his relationship with Shade 45, Eminem’s new satellite radio station.
The album deal with Koch grew out of his tireless determination and extensive networking. “Really been a combination of the past year and a half of me reaching out to them saying ‘look I’m doing this, I’m doing that’ till finally it just came to a point that a friend of ours over at Sure Shot reached out to them and said, ‘hey man you guys should pick up Clinton Sparks as an artist’.”
Of the forthcoming offerings he promises “hot beats”, “true hip-hop” showcasing his skills as DJ and producer. “It’ll be hip-hop combined with what’s actually popular now.” The official debut ‘Get Familiar, Vol. 1’ will be released in the summer in close succession to the March pre-album ‘Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too’. However, ever keen to escape the limitation of labels, Sparks shys away from the term ‘pre-album’ in the same manner with which he shrinks away from the word ‘DJ’. “This is a real album, we’re pushing it like it’s a real album. Promoting it like it’s a real album. The people that are involved… we have Mobb Deep, Joe Budden, Diddy, Fabolous, Jadakiss, Fat Joe, Kardinal Offishall.”
He is not so forthcoming about contributors to the second album, only admitting to a few ‘verbal commitments’. “Juelz Santana, Slim Thug, Joe Budden, Fabolous… I think I’m gonna have a Ludacris record on there….” These are happier unions than the one with Britney Spears, whose freestyle rapping featured on Sparks’ recent mixtape CD. “The label wasn’t too happy with that, I actually got a cease and desist letter.” An unauthorised collaboration, it was once again facilitated by his connections, when her voice was captured by a friend of Sparks who was working with Spears during a studio session. He is understandably reluctant to name names. Asked of the prevalence of this kind of practice, he admits it is not uncommon with material being “leaked”, “exclusives” gifted to DJs, or obtained from the Internet. Legal intervention by the label was perhaps less than effective thanks to the fast turning marketing wheels of the mixtape industry, often strongly driven by bootleggers. “The only thing a cease and desist letter can do in this day and age is stop you from personally distributing it… you can’t control anybody else.”
Reluctance to be associated with street level mixtapes may not come as a surprise to many who remember rumours of Britney’s unwillingness to do the Nelly collaboration ‘Tilt Your Head Back’ because it was too urban. Sparks exercises some understanding over the mixtape incident, partly implicating the label as, “looking out for the best interests of their artist’s image….. maybe she not fond of it or maybe she was just playing around and doesn’t want to be looked at as a rapper, I don’t know.”
The live weekly New York radio show on Shade 45 is another product of relationships cultured over the years with Eminem and Shady Record’s Paul Rosenberg. “I have a studio in my house and we hung out and we really built up a relationship… and had always said if something comes up, definitely get me involved.” Pitching the show as a “hot, energetic, fun, entertaining hip-hop show” went some way towards securing his spot.
Sparks seeks to leave no state untouched. New York, Wednesday; Connecticut on Friday; Baltimore on Saturdays and Boston radio Hot 97; a show in North Carolina, as well as a syndicated show through Super Radio broadcast to 40 different cities. Other corners of the globe have also featured in this self-confessed workaholic’s jet-set lifestyle. He expresses an eagerness to also touch UK soil.
Born and raised in Boston and of mixed English, Irish and Italian heritage, Sparks’ childhood was less than smooth. Son to an alcoholic father he speaks candidly of his struggle. “My mom was a single mom, worked three jobs. We were broke, had ‘roaches, really didn’t have much going on and then I got onto the world of being a criminal ‘cause we had no money, so I used to do a lot of things that got me arrested. My mom and dad got divorced when I was like four,” explained Sparks. “My mom sent me out to the suburbs with my dad when I was 15 and that was when he was at his rock bottom as an alcoholic. I lived with him again and watched him be an alcoholic and put a shot gun to his mouth, all types of stuff like that. It was crazy. Being brought up in the city in one year and then moving out to the suburbs and learning how that is made me a much more well-rounded person. I was able to understand how different people from different backgrounds operate and live, and I wasn’t ignorant to one type of background. I knew what it was like to be broke…. Now I was around all the white kids who lived in big houses and had their parents together and some money.”
At 18 he found himself broke and living in his truck. He landed a job working for UPS and moved back with his mother, craftily honing his skills in his basement apartment-cum-studio. A tragic accident sealed his destiny. “As I was working with UPS, I used to be in a group at that time too; I was a rapper and a dancer. I was carrying a 80lb package up some stairs and the stairs collapsed, I hurt my spine, I actually had spinal surgery…. I knew I could never do hard labour again. I said, ‘Aw man, I gotta take music seriously now’, so I just went full throttle. I said, ‘How can I make people listen to my tapes I’m making in my room? Why would they wanna listen to me? I said, ‘you know, I gotta become somebody of importance on radio’.”
News of his skills travelled. The opportunities offered to him were a product of his audacity and persistence. His glee is evident as he recalls the moment he won over radio industry bosses. “After listening to my CD, his back was towards me but I could see the side of his face and like his cheek came out like he was smilin’, you know, when something’s hot….”
He willingly shares secrets of his early success, including the mystery of how mixtapes get distributed. “Bootleggers, basically I send them out as promos just to get my name known and showcase my production and whatever artist I may be working with. I send them to the stores, barber shops, give them out when we do parties, you know; let the bootleggers do whatever they do.”
A willingness to delve outside the pool of rappers, including mainstream pop artists and Hollywood people like the Wayans brothers on his tapes perhaps demonstrates a boldness. However, contrary to popular belief, he has never worked with Ali G but says, “I mean I would love to. We both joke around, would probably be a hilarious CD so if you hear about me or if you read this we must do this CD together.”
Bearing in mind that many artists will eventually need to sign to a major label for greater global success I pose the question of whether the challenge to large record labels by the mixtape industry is damaging in the long term. “It’s a great thing and it can be a damaging thing; it’s a great thing ‘cause it’s a fantastic platform to showcase new artists, to present new music to promote somebody’s album coming out, for artists to get out freestyles and for DJs and artists to build relationships, so those DJs do mixtapes that are also on radio. There’s many positive sides to it, and the only negative side to it is when people actually bootleg somebody’s whole album. I’ m not cool with it; I don’t think the labels are cool with people that bootleg an entire album. All that time and money that that artist has actually spent on it; that artist has to pay back that money and you’ve just ruined that artist’s potential of trying to make the money back for the label so you just like really hurt the artists tremendously as well as the label. If you’re a fan of the artist, you got to look at it from that point of view.”
Mixtape DJs being approached by majors to promote new artists is something he’s very familiar with. He states there is irony in the way DJs can sometimes become targets. “Until albums started getting bootlegged mixtape DJs never even got bothered. If you think about it, it’s not hard to contact the 10-15 major DJs that do mixtapes and get them in trouble if you wanted to. I think it’s bigger than that; they’re not after the DJs. The RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America], they’re not from the streets, they don’t understand what goes on in the streets and stuff like that. They just see a major artist’s name on a CD and they just assume that’s copyright infringement. They don’t distinguish the difference between somebody’s bootlegged album and a DJs mixtape, which is displaying the DJs creativity as well as promoting the artist. That’s why they just come in and say everything’s illegal.”
Recruiting 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks to work with his protégés XL is one of his most recent endeavours, as well as re-launching the hip-hop lifestyle site MixUnit.com. Before we part company, he is also keen to get me familiar with his latest creation, ‘scratchtones’, his new venture with Def Jam Mobile and Hallmark Greetings, which he states will be an innovative variation on ringtones. With this parting shot, he proves himself to be not only DJ/producer, but also tireless marketeer.
For more information on DJ Clinton Sparks, visit his official website, www.clintonsparks.com.