The Big Aristotle. The Big Baryshnikov. The Real Deal. The Shaqtus.
Shaquille O’Neal has always been a man of many nicknames, all of them more hysterical and ridiculous than the next. But for the title of his musical debut, Shaq decided to stick with a classic – Diesel. As one of the first successful athlete/hip-hop crossovers, Shaq Diesel is shockingly enjoyable.
You would think that the same man who starred in Kazaam wouldn’t be able to piece together decent rhymes1. But instead, Shaq solidified himself as a surprisingly entertaining and charismatic MC. Gaining platinum status and a top 25 spot on the Billboard Charts, Shaq Diesel not only stands aside as a solid record, it’s an important moment in both the sports and music worlds. Hinting at Shaq’s propensity towards the limelight, Shaq Diesel set the stage for his move to LA. As celebrity status started to build, the small city of Orlando proved to be too small for Shaq’s ever-increasing fame. And as Shaq’s records continued to fly off the shelves, his contemporaries dabbled increasingly in the music world.
Riding off his absurd ROY winning season in Orlando (23.4 ppg, 13.9 rpg and 3.5 blocks) and rising celebrity status, Shaq gets a ridiculous production lineup. Erick Sermon, Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and K-Cut (known most for the amazing Breaking Atoms) are the main producers on the album and they’re some of the best ’93 had to offer. As a result, the production is consistently above-average, with mellow Native Tounges-esque boom bap beats dominating the record. “(I Know I Got) Skills” even has a Dr. Dre-esque G-funk beat, with a wailing synthesizer, booming bass and a little bit of record scratching. As a result, Shaq Diesel is a nice representation of 90s hip-hop production.
On the production side, there certainly aren’t any duds. From the intro, you can tell it’s a professionally produced album, as NBA commentary is scratched in with a variety of jazzy instrumentals and quotes. It’s just about the coolest introduction you could craft for Shaq.
Throughout the album, a fair share of classic samples are reinvented, with James Brown, Herbie Hancock and EPMD tracks all flipped in original fashion. They’re truly some of hip-hop’s production staples and hearing these beats on Shaq Diesel feels somewhat like a tribute to some of the then-blossoming classics.
As a rapper… Shaq actually ain’t too shabby. It’s obvious Shaq hasn’t been honing his lyrical skills for long – I mean, he was a professional athlete. But he has some moments where he gets in the zone and throws together a string of entertaining punchlines. And there’s actually a few times where I’ll guarantee you pause the record because you’re laughing too hard. So while Shaq doesn’t exactly blow anyone away with his rhymes, he’s charismatic and entertaining enough to carry a record.
Despite his lyrical skills, Shaq is about as corny as it gets. What else would you expect from a man with his sense of humor? On “Where Ya At?”, this style works flawlessly, as he trades the cheesiest basketball lines possible with the late great Phife Dawg2. On “Let Me In”, Shaq stays goofy chanting a chorus of “By the hairs of my chinny, chin, chin”. And on the arguable peak of the album, Shaq collaborates with Fu-Schinckens on “What’s Up Doc?”. He swaps the goofiness for a serious approach, comparing himself to Tony Danza, Magic CEO Dick DeVoss and dissing both Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner. It’s a hint at what Shaq could really accomplish if he focused on crafting a more serious track.
Though Shaq Diesel doesn’t seem to be an album with any influence or serious bearing, it had a strange impact on both hip-hop and NBA history. Shaq was one of the first celebrities to produce such an album on his own. But just 10 years later, NBA players like Kobe, Metta World Peace, Allen Iverson and (most infamously), Tony Parker hopped on the wagon, producing their own hip-hop albums. Chris Webber even had a track with Kurupt and produced tracks for Nas!3. Nowadays, it isn’t so uncommon for athletes to make music, with Iman Shumpert, Lou Williams and Kevin Durant all cranking out singles. And that’s just the NBA! John Cena has even paved out a decent music career thanks to his ridiculous rap battle persona (good Lord) and a platinum album in You Can’t See Me.
It’d be easy to point this influence back to historical albums. Muhammad Ali dabbled in music with I Am Greatest 4, Deion Sanders released Prime Time and Bill Walton had Men Are Made In The Paint. And compilations like B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret or Master P’s No Limit All Stars: Who U Wit? 5 put athlete crossovers into the limelight. But Shaq’s stardom and ridiculous influence at the time can’t be overstated.
A lot of Shaq Diesel‘s charm comes from its personality. Intentional or not, Shaq’s humorous lines manage to keep this album entertaining and lighthearted. Say what you will about modern hip-hop (I personally love it as well) but there’s a certain carefree, fun-loving attitude that seems so distinctly 90s. Groups like Pharcyde, Das EFX and De La Soul are often praised for their eccentric, carefree records and on Shaq Diesel, Shaq follows in their footsteps. So sure, Shaq Diesel isn’t an album without flaws. There’s basically every rap trope and cliche rolled into this 40 minute listen. But it embraces its cornball sense of humor, goes full steam ahead and doesn’t quit. And that, to me, is the beauty of early 90s hip-hop.
1I mean have you heard “We Genie”? Yikes.
2Oh my God, how can you not like this song?? It’s hysterical. “It’s 1993 I mean nineteem-ninety-Shaq” Ahhhhhh!
3Wonder why Nas has a reputation for picking shitty beats? Instead of teaming up with DJ Premier for more of his career, he let Chris Webber produce! Yikes.
4Actually two albums with this title. But we all know that The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay is really the moment that solidified him as the greatest.
5This can’t be good…