Mr. Get Familiar
Boston’s Clinton Sparks Smashes Radio Every Weekend in Baltimore and Beyond
It’s Saturday night and Clinton Sparks is in Boston setting up for another installment of his syndicated SmashTime Radio show, airing locally on Baltimore’s 92Q. Set to hit the wheels-of-steel at 7 p.m., Sparks is readying his playlist, deciding which exclusive remixes and singles will grace B-more’s airwaves, all punctuated by that trademark, squeaky sample of his “get familiar” catch phrase. Charm City may be quite a jaunt down I-95 from Sparks’ native Boston, but the journey from childhood rap fanatic, spending days perfecting his craft in his bedroom, to internationally syndicated radio show host has been a surprisingly easy transition for the 26-year-old DJ/producer.
Growing up, Sparks was mesmerized by hip-hop. “I was just a music fan since forever,” Sparks says. “‘New York, New York’ by Grandmaster Flash was my first 12-inch—I think I stole it from somewhere. When I was 10 years old, I would hear extended versions of popular songs on the radio, and I realized I wanted to manipulate songs to do what I wanted them to do.” He practiced for hours, using the only means available to him at the time. “I would use my mom’s dual cassette deck and stereo turntable, and I started making my own remixes,” he says. “They weren’t very good, but they were mine.”
As a teenager on the grind, Sparks slowly worked his rough mixes onto local Boston radio shows. But the tiny bit of play they received only opened his eyes to who really wielded the power in the industry. “After radio stations started playing my remixes and the DJs would tell labels about me, I would hear the labels say that they didn’t care,” Sparks laments. “I then realized that what they did care about was the radio DJs’ attention.
“I found out about a company called SupeRadio that syndicates radio programming,” he continues. “After about a year of me harassing them and them telling me to hit the road, I found out the address and traveled there. Once I got there, I wouldn’t leave until they listened to my demo. . . . I started two weeks later.”
Formed in 1988, SupeRadio reaches more than 2,500 stations in the U.S., syndicating DJs like Wendy Williams and the former Yo MTV Raps! duo of Ed Lover and Dr. Dre. Sparks’ first days at SupeRadio in the late ’90s were the baby steps toward becoming one of the most powerful hip-hop radio DJs in the industry. In 1998, the company took Sparks’ formative radio mix show—yet to create the catch phrase, attract the special guests, or develop the Sparks’ branding—to 10 cities nationwide, where he was given a slot among the local programming. (The company continues to syndicate SmashTime Radio, now in more than 40 markets, including Belgium, Australia, and on Sirius satellite radio.) But all the while, Sparks hadn’t forgotten the path he set out on before his lucrative swerve into radio. “I wanted to be known as a producer, not a DJ,” he says. When not on the air or attempting to broaden his market, he spent most of his free time making his own beats.
It was around this time that the hip-hop mixtape game exploded, and the semilegal CD compilations were the perfect way for Sparks to make a few dollars and showcase his homemade beats at the same time. Unlike the DJs who dominated the mixtape game at the time—DJ Clue, Whoo Kid—Sparks would get artists to give him exclusive verses over his own beats. While most mixtape DJs were on the hunt for the freshest song, Sparks found mixtapes to be the perfect outlet to promote songs that no one else could get.
Soon after he began putting together his first mixes, Sparks’ former program director at Hartford, Conn.’s Hot 93.7 came calling. Victor Starr was now running the show over at 92Q and had decided the time was right to bring SmashTime to its programming. Once the deal was inked, Sparks wasted no time getting to know the city’s players. “One of the first things I like to do when I start in a new market is to find out what artists are crackin’, what clubs are hoppin’, and who the club owners and promoters are,” he says.
It also didn’t take long for B-more’s rappers to start pushing their freshest material on the newly arrived DJ. He has been so impressed by local talent, in fact, that he included Mullyman on his debut album, 2005’s Maybe You Been Brainwashed, a relatively unknown B-more MC among some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Asked where he sees Baltimore hip-hop going, Sparks is quick to answer, “To the Grammys! It’s only a matter of time before B-more is the new ‘it’ city in hip-hop and R&B.”
Halfway through his three-hour set, Sparks is readying another exclusive. As he drops the needle, the familiar piano riff of the Cheers theme starts to play. The loop is quickly meshed with thumping drums and the menacing chants of Yonkers, N.Y., native D-Block. It’s a brilliantly unexpected track that Sparks produced for Touch the Sky, his latest mixtape hosted by Kanye West. The mix also includes Baltimore’s Bossman and his Sparks-produced song “Untouchable.” In addition to his show and his tapes, Sparks also runs www.mixunit.com, an online mixtape distributor. And he’s working on his next self-produced album, featuring Busta Rhymes, Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Ghostface, Juelz Santana, and many others. It’s a pretty prodigious work rate.
“Give me no longer than 24 months and my show will become the biggest hip-hop show in the world,” he says without a hint of modesty. “Not the U.S., the world.” It may sound like typical hip-hop braggadocio, but Sparks’ drive and self-confidence make you wonder who would bet against his prediction. Better get familiar.
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