Clinton Sparks was a friendless kid the first time he put his hands on an album playing atop his mother’s stereo system and moved it beneath the needle. Instead of cringing at the irritating screech, the 10-year-old heard something else: He could manipulate music and fill the room with powerful sounds.
Quickly, Sparks learned being alone wasn’t so lonely if you made the most of the solitude – and he did, creating different beats and sounds as he mixed. Soon, the kids living in his Boston apartment building discovered what he was doing – along with the treats his mother, a security guard at the complex, regularly set out – and suddenly, he had an audience.
Sparks has had one ever since, though he now puts what has evolved into a masterful touch on tunes for some of the biggest names in the industry as a multi-platinum producer-songwriter, internationally-requested club DJ, host and DJ of a wildly-popular syndicated radio show that airs around the world, recording artist, E! News music correspondent and the headlining – two-legged – performer for Saturday’s first-ever Opening Night at Churchill Downs.
“I didn’t really have any friends and my mom worked all the time,” Sparks recalled of his childhood last week in a phone conversation from the Houston Intercontinental Airport, where he’d just arrived after deejaying a chichi gig in Mexico and was on a five-hour layover on his way to a performance in Edmonton. “I’m sorry I sound kind of hoarse right now,” he apologized. “I haven’t slept since – I don’t know – yet.”
Sparks stopped speaking for a moment to settle into the airport’s Continental Presidents Club and sip a hot cup of Lipton tea. “I literally almost live out of a bag and I almost live on a plane. On my bio on Facebook I’m tempted to put where it says, ‘Where do you live?’ an airport. You learn to live with your body half broken. But I love it,” he enthused. “I love my life.”
Sparks speaks about his successes with palpable gratitude, as if he’s almost surprised by his continued rise. But he began orchestrating it more than two decades ago when he focused on honing his skills and found he was winning over more of his peers each time he competed in a local talent show.
The budding DJ won contest after contest all across his city and continued to find ways to improve. He studied the greats – DJs like Funkmaster Flex, Grandmaster Flash and Jazzy Jeff – but instead of emulating them, he’d figure out how to take what they’d already done and move beyond. “If it wasn’t for them setting the standard, I wouldn’t have been able to raise the bar,” Sparks said. “I never wanted to be the ‘next best’ person; I wanted to be the first awesome me.”
Confident he had an innate ability and unprecedented drive, Sparks put his spinning and ever-increasing comedic abilities working in radio before turning his attention to the World Wide Web, which had not yet evolved into the mainstream force it is today. Eager to get noticed by both established acts and up ‘n’ coming talents emerging on the music scene, “I pretended I had a radio show on the Internet,” Sparks admitted. “That’s how I got Eminem, Wu-Tang Clan (to come on the show as guests). I thought, how do I get them to get familiar with me and I said ah ha. … I knew they didn’t know enough to check up and see if what I was doing was legit.”
Actually, Sparks did have an Internet radio show, which he hosted, mixed and produced from his home studio. It wasn’t anywhere near as major as he alluded, but he treated the show as if it were, and before he knew it, he’d accomplished his goal to “become reputable, credible.”
Sparks committed to treating himself as a brand and came up with a personal catchphrase, “get familiar,” that’s become almost an extension of his name. “I understand marketing. I understand branding. I understand human emotions. I get it,” he paused before saying the two words with emphasis – and an audible smile: “Get familiar.”
Sparks is now on what appears to be a nonstop train of triumphs and experiences. He’s worked as P. Diddy’s official DJ. He’s written and produced for notable names like Akon, Beyoncé, Ludacris, Rick Ross, Soulja Boy, The Game and Pitbull. He’s spun in clubs around the world. He’s signed as an artist/producer to Interscope Records. And soon, he’ll release his own debut album – yes, he sings – which is already getting raves from industry bigwigs for its smash-up of musical genres and innovation. “(It) sounds like a hybrid of a whole bunch of stuff put together,” Sparks said. “I might not be the best singer in the world, but I know that I can make amazing songs.”
The 31-year-old also is an on-camera correspondent for E!, a gig that accentuates Sparks’ penchant for humor and his knowledge about one of his strongest demographics. “I ask the question the typical college kid would want to ask but would be afraid to,” Sparks said. “I’ve always been a ham for the camera. I always love joking around with people.”
He also thrives on being prepared.
Sparks critiques his own interviews like a harsh outside observer and watches legendary interviewers, including Oprah, not only to study their often flawless methods but also to catch the rare moments when they err. Among the lessons he’s learned:
Let people talk and genuinely listen to what they’re saying. “I hate that when people interrupt.”
Get over yourself. “People are so worried about being the coolest guy in the room,” Sparks said.
And always remember, particularly when interviewing high-profile people: “It really just comes down to they’re human and real just like us. People put other people on such pedestals. I remember the thrill of first meeting these young kids who thought I was cool. I was like, ‘I think that’s amazing that you went out of your way to tell me about it, but I’m just like you guys.’ I’ll never get over that and I’ll never get used to it.”
“When I’m doing (shows), I’m super nervous. Even before I DJ anything else I’m a wreck. … I guess I’m kind of a cliché artist where you’re insecure and wondering if people really like what you do,” Sparks said. “When I hang out with Kanye and other people, they seem like they’re confident and happy and they know what they want to give to the world. … No, they’re nervous! I always walk on stage as if everybody hates me and I have to convince them that I’m worth staying to watch. I never walk on stage like (the audience is) here for me, (and) this is easy.”
Contact writer Angie Fenton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502.551.2698.
Get Familiar with Clinton Sparks
Opening Night at Churchill Downs
Presented by Budweiser Select.
Saturday, April 30.
Gates open at 4 p.m.; first race is at 6 p.m.
Music by DJ Clinton Sparks and Off The Hook
Dress code is cocktail chic; fashionable headwear encouraged.
General Admission is $10.
For reserved seating tickets and more information, go to www.churchilldowns.com, call 502.636.4400 or visit Churchill Downs at 700 Central Ave., Louisville, Ky.
Category: Cover Stories
About the Author (Author Profile)
Angie Fenton is Managing Editor of The Voice-Tribune, a Blue Equity company. She is also an entertainment correspondent for WHAS11′s new morning show, “Great Day Live!”, which debuted August 22 on Louisville’s ABC affiliate. Additionally, Angie is an entertainment correspondent for the Saturday Morning Show with Ron ‘n’ Mel Fisher on 84WHAS (840 AM) and has served in the same capacity for Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks; Breeders’ Cup; and Circuit of the Americas during the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix in November 2012. Angie also serves as an emcee, host, voiceover professional and on-camera commercial talent.
Angie has a bachelor’s and master’s in English from Central Michigan University and began her career as an adjunct professor at her alma mater. She is the youngest of five — four of whom were adopted, including Angie, and none of whom are biologically related. She is also a Michigan native who moved to Kentucky in June 2002. Angie is owned by two dogs — Herbie and Yoda — and feels lucky to have loved and been loved by many more, including Pooch, Jessie, Onyx, Jack and Big Bud, who took his last breath on Christmas Day 2012.