When Shaquille O’Neal looks back on his NBA career, he’ll see that he’s accomplished what many athletes hope for: being a Hall of Famer, four-time champion, 15-time All Star and one of the greatest centers in league history. However, one of his most illustrious feats came over two decades ago away from the basketball court when he decided to take on the music industry as a rapper.
In today’s sports world, there are plenty of athletes who don’t condone the “stick to sports” narrative and try their hands in different ventures — especially music. JaVale McGee is a producer, Victor Oladipo croons sweet R&B, and Damian Lillard is self-proclaimed as the league’s best MC. But back in the ‘90s that was unheard of, especially for a second-year rookie already known by one name: Shaq.
It all started in December 1992 when Shaq was asked to appear on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Instead of going on television to talk about his professional basketball career, he asked his friend and show host, Arsenio Hall, about only appearing if he could perform. Hall agreed, and Shaq hit the show stage alongside one of his favorite hip-hop groups, Fu-Schnickens. The world got a chance to see Shaq out of his element, and he seemed to make quite an impression on a number of viewers — so much so that former Jive Records owner Clive Calder worked with his A&R team to quickly sign Shaq to his first record deal.
But could the big man on the court live up to some of the most prominent names in hip-hop?
At the time, artists like Dr. Dre, Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan were making a name in the rap game, so Shaq had a different kind of competition at the microphone. He wanted to prove what he could do in music.
“If I was going to make an album, it was going to have to be done right,” said O’Neal. “And I realized I couldn’t carry an album by myself. My concept was always to rap with my favorite artists. It was never… about me trying to be a superstar rapper.”
For Shaq to deliver a project he would be proud of, he worked with a number of hit-making producers: Def Jef, Meech Wells, K-Cut, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Erick Sermon. It’s one thing to have a team of players around with hopes of collectively winning a championship, but it’s another thing to team up with music royalty known for working with artists like EPMD, Redman and A Tribe Called Quest. To help his album appeal to his core sports fans, he made sure that his music content centered around what he knew best: himself and basketball.
On Oct. 26, 1993, “Shaq Diesel” was born.
The album starts with an audio clip of former NBA commissioner David Stern announcing Shaquille O’Neal as the first pick in the 1992 draft. However, it’s the project’s first single, titled “(I Know I Got) Skillz,” that illustrates his talents at the mic and on the court. His boastful lyrics helped the track peak at No. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and proved he could make a solo hit. Whether the song was about addressing his fans or his doubters, Shaq wanted to show he could not only attack players at the rim, but he also could run with some of the best MCs.
His follow-up single, “I’m Outstanding,” became an even bigger hit. Sermon helped Shaq make the perfect rags-to-riches anthem about his life growing up — serving as a thank-you message to his parents. Not only was able to give listeners a glimpse into his life story, but the single also was a top-10 smash record on the Hot Rap Singles chart.
Between the producers and few features with Fu Schnickens and A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg, Shaq accomplished what he set out to do:make an album with artists he admired. The project was filled with beat scratches, old-school samples and third verses, which was a signature for the ‘90s hip-hop sound. Perhaps, he didn’t even know where the album could take him.
However, Shaq has been known for boasting confidently. “Are You a Roughneck?” brought that out of Shaq as he made a bold prediction about his buzzing music career: “Cause I knick knack, paddy whack 'em, dig 'em, smack 'em/Shaq Attack 'em, soon my tune will be platinum (Ooh!)/So what you gonna do when that happen?/First you see me dunkin', now you see me rappin.'”
Just five months after the album’s release, Shaq did the unthinkable of selling over a million copies. Not only did he become a platinum-selling artist, but the album also peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard 200.
Once athletes witnessed Shaq’s rise as a rapper, some of them attempted to follow suit. Deion Sanders, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson all tried their hands at MC skills but failed to reach a “Shaq Diesel” level. Instead, he’s the only athlete to successfully become a platinum artist. But how does an athlete accomplish something so extraordinary? He had the backing of both sports fans and music listeners.
Some were already fans of the big man, but some were skeptical of his rapping skills and were curious if he could deliver. Shaq proved his doubters wrong by releasing three follow-up albums — all before winning his first NBA championship. Over the years, he became well-respected in the music community as his collaborations expanded with artists like Rakim, Jay-Z, Michael Jackson and The Notorious B.I.G.
Although it’s been 25 years since he debuted “Shaq Diesel,” the former NBA player still continues to work in music. He let go of his rapping days years ago but keeps his music career alive as a DJ under the moniker DJ Diesel.
Shaq will always be praised for his 19-year career as one of the greatest centers in basketball history, but fans should never forget how he became a platinum-selling rapper — a feat no other athlete has been able to do.