Nowadays, it’s not just mashed up music. It’s mashed up people. Everybody hangs out with each other now. Black kids are skateboarding and white kids are rapping. – Clinton Sparks
“Get Familiar!” If you claim to be a hip-hop mixtape fan that calling card is embedded in your mental Rol0dex right next to your Two-Way pager alerts. However, Boston born DJ/producer/ television correspondent and now artist Clinton Sparks has transcended the mixtape game to become a global brand. In the years since he got his nephew to record that near ubiquitous drop he has produced songs for Akon, Pitbull, Ludacris, Tyrese, Beyonce, T-Pain, Rick Ross, Diddy and Leighton Meester.
This week Sparks has put on his artist hat with his group Ughmerica, a campy, pop, anti-establishment group that has just released their first single and video “No Swag” on Karmaloop.com.
“The music that I’m about to roll out is nothing like anything you’ve heard from me,” Sparks told TheUrbandaily.com. “The Clinton Sparks solo project and Ughmerica is very pop/rock with hip-hop influences. You’ll be able to tell I’m a hip-hop guy, but it’s pop/rock music. The cool thing about it is that all of my friends who are in successful bands say I sound like I’m supposed to be doing the pop/rock kind of music. They don’t think I sound like a hip-hop guy trying to do it. It sounds organic.”
So it only seemed appropriate to take a few minutes to “re-familiarize” ourselves with Clinton Sparks and get the scoop on how he plans to kill “Swag.”
TUD: What’s behind the name, Ughmerica? You might get Herman Cain and the Tea Party coming after you.
Clinton Sparks: Basically, there’s so many meanings. We’ve been trying to come up with a concise meaning, like one or two lines, and it’s kind of difficult. It just represents an idea or a feeling. Ughmerica represents people who like to be original and walk their own path. Also, it represents people who don’t conform to what society deems as cool. That’s why the first single is called “No Swag.” To me, people who yell, “Swag!” all the time are carbon copies of the next person. Having swag is being a trendsetter. I don’t really subscribe to some of the lifestyle things people are doing. When you look at me as a DJ I never really fit in. You had DJ Kay Slay, Whoo Kid and Green Lantern, who I’m friends with, and then you had an Afro Jack and A-Trak, but I’m friends with all them, but I didn’t fit in there either. I was always just Clinton Sparks.
99% of us have no swag. And that’s ok! Because there are more “uncool” than cool in the world. We out rule the f*cking cool. And who determines what’s cool? Why is it when you play an instrument in school they look at you like you’re a nerd, THAT’s cool. Most of the losers that you call “losers” make half of the sh*t that you use.
The other thing about Ughmerica too is that we live in an awesome country to have freedom to do whatever you want to do. When you see people disrespecting it…everything from racism, to bullying to polluting you just want to go “ugh..merica.” I was homeless, bro. I lived in the woods in my car and I now I travel the world and make good money. This is a great country. I’ve traveled to other countries and seen the difference, it’s so disheartening. But I don’t want to get too political with the name.
TUD: Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers that one of the habits of successful people is spending at least 10,000 hours on your craft. Do you think you’ve spent that amount of time to your work?
CS: [laughs] Yes! I don’t know how many days that equals to, but for 10 years of my life I’ve spent 10 to 15 hours in my studio working. Dude, like half of my life working. I would work and work until I couldn’t stand anymore. I’d sleep for a couple of hours and go right back into the studio. I don’t hang out, drink, chase ass, or do drugs. I just work, bro. I genuinely love doing that.
TUD: I’ve been meaning to ask someone who’s been in the business a long time what the difference is between mixtapes and albums. I harmlessly tweeted about how some of the best albums of 2011 have been mixtapes. I got a few co-signs but quite a few angry responses as well. What is your take on that?
CS: There are different levels of mixtapes. There is the old cliche format of a rapper just taking beats out and rapping over them. That kind of mixtape would be upsetting to those who take the time to produce original music and compare it to the cliche format. Mixtapes have become so much more and have evolved to become legitimate projects. Dude, the mixtape I did with The Clipse, We Got It For Cheap Vol 2, was on Rolling Stone’s top 50 Albums of the Year and it was a mixtape. It was all over other people’s beats. So they’re whatever you want to call them. I don’t even entertain people who get upset over stuff like that. It’s not that serious.
TUD: You’ve been really busy since the last time we connected, which was around 2006-2007. If you were coming out now how would your marketing strategy be different in 2011 as opposed to when you first came out?
CS: I mean everything is the internet. So it’s so much easier right now. Literally, all you have to do is keep blitzing the internet with content. Before, it was a lot of groundwork. You had to meet people, shake hands, getting in touch with people on the phone. Now with Twitter and Facebook, [you can] build a connection. For instance, I haven’t seen radio personality, Angela Yee, in a while, but I feel like I have because I know what’s going on with her because she’s on my timeline.
It’s so easy to make a decent video now. But it could get saturated just like the mixtape game did. It’s starting to happen now. There’s a huge wave of young college MCs and artists that are self sufficient. Inevitably that’s gonna get played out and we’ll see what happens next.
As far as me coming out now, my strategy would be to blitz the Internet with great product, get cool with the heads of the most important blogs, and see what other people are doing and do it better.
TUD: The Twitter spam is getting out of hand though.
CS: Bro, I can’t even tell you. I swear I get like a half a dozen people sending messages like, “Please make my dream come true and follow me. I love you from Brazil.” I’ll sit there and wonder if they’re a real person because there’s so much spamming going on. If they’re a real person, I want to follow them because I think it’s cool hat they have so much love for me. But you never know.
TUD: Given the breadth of your work,what is your take on music right now?
CS: When I was younger and in school, it was very segregated and sectioned off. The Asian kids sat here and the black kids sat at those three tables and things like that. That’s how music was, too. There was hip-hop, pop, rock, grunge, reggae, and R&B music. What you listened to defined what social group you hung out with and what type of person you were. Nowadays, it’s not just mashed up music. It’s mashed up people. Everybody hangs out with each other now. Black kids are skateboarding and white kids are rapping. So there aren’t any boundaries or rules anymore. All the world cares about right now is awesome music. No one cares about the bells and whistles that we used to care about in the TRL days. It’s all about good music.
TUD: The group album from Ughmerica is one thing, but you also have a solo album coming.
CL: Yes, interestingly enough I just wrapped my solo album. What happened was when I was finishing up the solo album, I was sitting with Patrick Stump, the lead singer of Fall Out Boy, told me, “Your lyrics are so awesome and visual. There’s a tongue in cheek thing going on in your songs. I know this guy, Jacob Casher, who would fit well with your writing.” I reached out to Jacob and I heard he was working with Rivers Cuomo, who is like a god to me. I met him and his boy, Phil. We instantly connected and vibed. We knocked seven records out in four days and decided to put our own project out.
TUD: You mentioned earlier that you used to be homeless. When was that? What were the circumstances that mitigated that?
CL: I don’t want to get into details, but I was homeless around 1997. I’m a total different person now than when I was younger and I used to get in trouble with the law. I lived in my car for three months in the winter time. There were nights I’d be in my car and I’d swear I wasn’t going to wake up it was so cold. The reason I’m saying that is I hope that inspires someone to say “sh*t, look what he’s doing now.” Man, I don’t want to get too political, but we live in a great country. I wanted to write a book and title it, “How To Be Broke and Never Starve.”What I learned is you can be homeless and never go hungry. I know because I lived it. Made people leave food in the halls of their hotels that they’re not eating. I mean some of the things I did weren’t legit, but [now] I’m traveling all over the world doing what I love to do.
TUD: You also said something earlier about maintaining personal relationships. In the digital age that we live in, how important is it to still manage and maintain these personal relationships with artists, producers, and people in the industry?
CL: That’s 100% crucial to the business. I love people, first of all. I love getting feedback. I don’t care if you’re a janitor or a label A&R. I love all feedback. I take pride in all maintaining all of my relationships with people. I will randomly hit people with a text just to see how they’re doing. You might not realize it, but that means a lot to people. I always treat everybody with the same amount of respect and that’s gotten me far in business and in life.
TUD: How does someone go from doing mixtapes to being an E! News correspondent?
CL: Some questions you have to answer make you sound pompous. I’m trying to figure out how to word this without coming off as pompous or sounding full of myself.
I’ve always been somebody who’s had the bigger picture in mind. I’m always thinking of the next step and always thinking further than what I’m doing right now. I did mixtapes to get my production off the ground. The first mixtape I did was totally original production. I became a DJ so I could get labels interested in my beats and to get their attention. Being a DJ was never my goal. However, I knew my stuff was hot so I drove from Maine to Atlanta handing out my mixtapes with my name and number on it. I found a list of stores that carried mixtapes through put the country and sent them some too. People heard my stuff and started placing orders. It was that fast and easy.
Once I started getting recognized nationally and globally, I got a call from a friend of mine who worked at Arista Records. She told me her boyfriend worked for a magazine and they were having a conference. Her boyfriend wanted me to be a guest on the panel. I was scheduled to do that and Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s manager, hit me and said that Em had a show in Boston on the same night. They wanted to bring me out on stage. I tried to get out of the panel, but my friend’s boyfriend was a big fan of mine. I told Paul I couldn’t be at Em’s show.
The day comes and it snows. I wind up driving to New York for this mystery panel. I get there and only 12 people were in the audience. So I did the panel. About two three years later, I get a call from that kid I did the panel for. That kid happened to be Ben Lyons. I don’t know if you know who Ben Lyons is, but he is the movie critic for E! and his dad is the world famous movie critic, Jeffrey Lyons. Ben asked if I would be interested in doing music news for E! entertainment. I said sure and a meeting was set up with Ben’s boss. I flew out to the set, got a mic, we went live. I did that for six weeks before they told me if I got the job. So Ben Lyons is the reason I got to E! News.
TUD: You said earlier it all started with you making beats. How are you making these Lady Gaga and these Akon records?
CS: Both of those were made in different ways, but I have my home studio. I’m sitting in here working as we speak. I got a call from someone an A&R at Sony who needs records for Mike Posner, Jennifer Hudson, Jordan Sparks, and more. When I get off the phone with you, I’m going to knock some records out so I can be on as many projects as I can. I make beats anywhere-at home, on the plane, the hotel. There’s no one set way.
TUD: What are your weapons of choice when creating beats?
CS: Well, we use Logic and Reason. Here at my house, I use Pro Tools and my Virus or guitar or my ASR-10. It depends on what kind of music I’m trying to make. If I’m gonna start with a melody I start with Virus or a guitar and I’m going to start with samples or drums I go with my ASR-10. I started making beats with an EPS, though.
TUD: I was reading you have a Beyonce record that was almost placed. How long ago was that?
CS: That was about three years ago. Actually, she recorded it. I have it. It’s done. It’s a finished record. I got the email from her label telling me congratulations because I made the album. I was excited because I wrote the track too. In the long run, they said it didn’t make the album because it didn’t fit the sequence of it. Something will happen with it one day. I’m not worried. Hopefully, I get so hot they’ll let me release it as a duet. I already have it chopped up as a duet. [laughs]
TUD: Do you have any other songs or placements just sitting in the vault that you can’t wait to unleash on the world?
CS: What?! I can’t even tell you how many unreleased songs I have that may never see the light of day. I have tracks with Mike Posner, Far East Movement, Brandy, Fabolous, and others that are sitting here doing nothing. Who knows? Maybe 20 years from now I’ll be important enough to put all those songs out on a compilation. You never know.
TUD: Your song “Favorite DJ” was a big hit so I have to ask this; Who is your favorite DJ, besides yourself?
CS: That’s a tough question because I know the names of DJs who are cracking right now, but I’m not 100% with all of their material. I like DJs who really captivate the crowd. They have to be really involved and energetic. What I mean by that is you have the DJs who use the music to keep the energy crazy and then you have the DJs who use the music as another weapon in their arsenal.
If I had to pick , I’d say Atrak is pretty dope. Jazzy Jeff is pretty cool. The first DJ that really impacted me was DJ Chubby Chubb. He was the first DJ I saw, as a kid, get the crowd in the palm of his hand. People were just looking at him and waiting for him to tell them what to do. I made “Favorite DJ” as a tool for DJs to use when they get on the set so it’s THEIR record. No matter who plays that record tonight they’re your favorite DJ.
TUD: What are some of your favorite beats you’ve heard this year?
CS: I like the sound David Guetta has brought to the world. I love Swedish House Mafia’s sound. Dr. Luke, as a producer, is amazing. I’m a big fan of Weezer and I like a band called All Time Low.
TUD: What is it about their respective sounds that attracts you to them?
CS: Growing up, I have pop music in my veins. I’m a hip-hop head who loves rock music and bleeds pop music. It’s all in me. When I sit down and start creating, it’s helpful and hurtful because sometimes I’ll have too many ideas in my head and can’t complete one. It’s helps me because I’m able to pull from different influences and fuse them together to make something cool. That’s where my hip-pop rock comes full circle into my music.
TUD: So have you abandoned the boom-bap/street sound completely?
CS: In case you think I went too dance or too pop I’m gonna play you this record I did. I got some mean shit, bro. This D-Block record “Ugly” has Masspike Miles on the hook. I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day. I have another one with Snoop called “Get Familiar.” I got records for days. [*Plays three songs that produce a scrunch face head nod from the writer*]
TUD: So why are you sitting on these??
CS: I’m sure you heard “Good Music” with Common, Kweli and Consequence record I threw out there. I threw out a record with Too $hort and E-40 a few months ago, “Super Duper Star.”
I don’t want to confuse people. If I come out with my album and then put these hip-hop records out it’ll look like I’m just doing the DJ thing and putting all my rap friends on it.