The Fall and Redemption of Doreen Broadnax
b.k.a. Sparky D
By Mark Skillz
“In all thy ways acknowledge him and He shall direct thy paths.”
In the Book of Job, while in conversation with Satan, God asked the Devil what had he been up to? Basically, the Devil answered that he had been roaming the Earth looking for someone to corrupt. The Almighty then singled Job out to the devil, knowing how faithful Job was to him. It was then that all matter of catastrophes rained down on his life. But through it all Job never lost faith.
In the mid 80’s a female MC out of the Van Dyke Projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn embarked on a career that would see her life go from the pinnacle of early hip hop stardom to being a victim of domestic abuse, homelessness and drug addiction.
“You gotta go through something in order to grow,” says a proudly re-born Doreen Broadnax better known to hip hop fans as Sparky D.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. to a black father and a white mother, Doreen not only had to endure the prejudice of her black neighbors, but the racism of her mother’s family as well. Recalling those times Sparky says, “Being an inter-racial child in the projects was rough. We had it hard. I was raised on the 14th floor in the Van Dyke Projects. Sometimes I would sit back and ask myself ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ When I had to be black, I was black, when I had to be white, I was white, when I had to be Puerto Rican, I was Puerto Rican.”
Although she was from one of the toughest projects in Brooklyn, Sparky’s mother worked really hard to send her children to Catholic School. It was because of this that the kids in her neighborhood called her a ‘rich cracker’.
Usually people that have endured this kind of taunting grow up having poor self- esteem, but not Sparky, who adamantly says, “I always believed in myself…I didn’t really have low self-esteem, if anything I had high self-esteem.”
It was that high self-esteem that enabled Sparky to record an answer record called “Sparky’s Turn” on Nia Records in 1985. “Sparky’s Turn” was an in your face, all-out, go-for-broke-take no shorts diss record aimed at Roxanne Shante. It was by far one of the more significant answer records in the “Roxanne, Roxanne” series.
It all started in 1984, when Brooklyn rap trio UTFO recorded “Roxanne, Roxanne” on Select Records. Originally “Roxanne, Roxanne” was released as a b-side to a record entitled “Hanging Out”. It was one of the most significant rap records of that year in that it would take on a legacy of it’s own.
The song featured the three MC’s meeting a fictional girl that although very fly, had no time - or interest in any of them. The MC’s rapped about their hurt feelings over a programmed version of Billy Squire’s break beat classic “The Big Beat”.
The first person to record an answer to “Roxanne, Roxanne” was a 14 year-old MC from the Queensbridge Projects named Lolita Gooden, but known at that time as Fly Shante. With a voice as cracky as project wallpaper, and the attitude of an indignant Millie Jackson, Shante, who re-named herself “Roxanne Shante”, tore into the MC’s like a four year old with a brand new present at Christmas time.
On New Years Eve while listening to Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack on WBLS, Spyder and Sparky both agreed that Shante’s record had to be answered. Taking up the good fight for UTFO and championing her borough of Brooklyn, Sparky recorded a diss that set fire to the rap world.
With a voice that slightly echoed Bronx pioneer Sha Rock of the Funky 4 + 1, and the attitude of a concrete warrior, Sparky, over Spyder D’s minimalist drum programming and sparse keyboard accompaniment lit into Shante like the riots of 1967. The Linn Drum programming would call to mind the distant drumming of ancestors on a battlefield deep in remote antiquity.
By the end of 1985 there would be an estimated 50 answer records made in the “Roxanne, Roxanne” series. Many, if not most of them were laughable at best. “Sparky’s Turn” shined out above the mass of garbage like spinning rims on Pitkin Avenue.
Sparky D was an intimidating MC on the streets of Brooklyn her legendary battles with rival Queens- bred MC Roxanne Shante has become the stuff of urban folklore.
The two MC’s had one epic battle in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina in 1984.
“I’ll never forget that battle,” says Sparky 20 years later “It was like Ali-Frazier…It was real, there was so much energy in the air. I mean, things were really heated, Red Alert and Marley Marl didn’t speak, my people and her people were staring at each other…It was crazy.”
“The anticipation for that battle was unbelievable, there was long lines of people waiting to enter the venue. I mean you name it, they were there; old people, young people, white people, black people, it was crazy” said Spyder D, Sparky’s former boyfriend and manager.
Eventually, the two would become friends and would take their rivalry to the studio to record the EP entitled “Round One: Roxanne Shante vs. Sparky D”.
On the road according to Sparky, “Every night was like a battle.” Each MC’s respective crew was involved in the tension as well, with one notable exception: Roxanne Shante’s then human beat box, Biz Markie.
According to Sparky, in 1994 when she was down and out in Virginia, and wrestling with a raging crack addiction, she bumped into old friend Biz Mark outside of a venue he was performing at. “He saw me and gave me the biggest hug, and I guess he could tell I wasn’t doing so well, because he stuck $500 in my hand…just like that” recalls Sparky.
Now why would the “Clown Prince of Hip Hop” do such a thing? It’s because when she and Shante went out on the road, Biz was treated like a “wet food stamp.” According to Sparky, “I used to let him stay in my room with me, and would buy him steaks and things because Shante would tease him unmercifully, she talked about how his feet stank and how ugly he was…she used to kick him out of her room all the time, and he would stay with me and my crew.”
During her career Sparky – who was often perceived as an intimidating force on the rap scene, was also the type to offer encouragement and support to upstart rappers like Salt and Pepa and LL Cool J.
“When Salt and Pepa first went out and started performing, they were scared…they used to watch me [perform] and wonder how come I wasn’t scared. I used to tell them, you can’t be scared of these people,” says Sparky.
Of a young LL Cool J she says, “I remember him before he was LL, I used to take him shopping with me and everything. As a matter of fact, the first time I performed at Disco Fever I took him shopping with me when I bought my outfit for that night, I bought him a chain and used to advise him all the time, now look at him,” says a proud Sparky.
Although she wasn’t the type to be easily intimidated by any audience there was one crowd that had her shook – and that was the notorious Disco Fever crowd. “The first time I performed at the Fever, I ain’t gonna lie, I was scared,” says Sparky adding “the crowd at the Fever, were no joke, they would let you know right then if you was wack. If you could rock the Fever – you could rock anywhere on the planet,” said Sparky.
It was at one of these notorious New York City “hot spots” that Sparky was first introduced to cocaine. “The Funhouse is where I first snorted cocaine, someone had it in a dollar bill and was like, here, try this,” said Sparky. This was the beginning of a long decline for her.
When crack invaded the urban landscape like wildfire in late 1984, it held Black and Latino youth hostage for well over a decade. The first generation of hip hoppers were the earliest captives. Cocaine and PCP were staples on the early hip hop scene; at many parties the drug was readily available for partygoers and hip hop artists alike. According to Sparky, “ People used to sprinkle cocaine into their cigarettes and smoke it like that.”
It was later, after a show at the Encore in Queens, that Sparky was first introduced to crack. Though she wasn’t quickly addicted to it, she, like every other drug abuser found it difficult to repeat the ecstasy of her first hit. Most drug abusers chase highs for a lifetime. Sparky chased the white powdered ghost for two decades.
According to Sparky, “I was always able to handle business, I never got high in the day time, only at night. A person could come over to my house with two kilos in the middle of the day and I wasn’t gonna touch ‘em. But at night, it was on.”
Sparky got involved on both sides of the drug trade as both user and seller. But the life she was leading was slowly affecting other areas of her life. At first when she would get high, she would rhyme for her friends, “I would always tell them, watch I’m coming back out, just wait…and I said that shit for years and years,” says a remorseful Sparky. The more she stopped recording and performing, the faster she saw her dream slip from in between her fingers like sand on the beach.
Of all the people in the business that turned their back on Sparky during this time, there was one person who was always in her corner that was her deejay Kool DJ Red Alert, of whom she hid her addiction from for years.
Even though her life was slowly spinning out of control she says she always had it in her to encourage herself and others to do better spiritually. “I was always a spiritual person, but I wasn’t in touch with that higher spirit at that time,” says Sparky.
To complicate matters after moving to Los Angeles in 1989, her relationship with Spyder D came to an end. It was there at that time, that she met another man and had a son. That relationship soon ended due to domestic violence.
In 1994 she returned to New York with nowhere to go and no one to really stay with, she says of this period in her life, “My relationship with Spyder was over, so I couldn’t stay with him. Even my own sister wouldn’t take me in.” With nowhere to go Sparky, now a former rap star had no choice but to check into a shelter.
For many, the rapid changes in the world of hip hop are hard to take; for rap stars of a bygone era it’s even harder. One day you’re an 18 year old aspiring MC with the world ahead of you; and then slowly, at first, like the motion of the tide leaving the shore, you’re a 30 plus year old with more years behind you then ahead and your style of rap is out of date. No one tells you what to do next.
“It’s like going up the down stairs”, says Sparky adding that, “you think that you can maintain but you can’t.”
In 1998 while trying to get her life back together she met a man and got married. He was also an addict too. “He worked to get high,” says Sparky “He never missed a day of work, but that’s what he did. But, you know the saying ‘birds of a feather flock together’ Drugs ruined my marriage.”
It was this tumultuous relationship that had Sparky’s safety in jeopardy. “I have 42 stitches in my head as a result of domestic violence” says Sparky.
It was during this time that Doreen says she, “prayed to God to take the taste of drugs out of my mouth.” With a renewed sense of faith Doreen went about putting her life back together. She left her husband in Virginia and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to be closer to her children.
In 1998 Doreen was re-born she is an Apostolic Pentecostal now. She hadn’t listened to secular music in years. “There’s life and death in the power of the tongue, what you say out of your mouth comes into existence. First, I was delivered from smoking cigarettes, when I stopped that my friends and family reached out for me”, says Sparky. “It took faith in a higher power for me to overcome my troubles. I always believed in myself even through domestic violence.”
As a child, before she ever entertained the thought of being a rapper, a young Doreen Broadnax wanted to be a pediatrician, but the lure of rap fame killed those thoughts. She is now an EMT/C.N.A. in Atlanta, and is working on gospel material.
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