Stop using the NBA legend's hip-hop career as a punchline.
Written by Brendan Frederick (@bfred)
It’s a given at this point: rich basketball players make poor rappers. According to countless half-baked internet listicles, the NBA’s aspiring MCs have contributed nothing of value to hip-hop. And while it’s true that most braggadocious ballers are an embarrassment (see: Steve “Ja Rule” Francis), there is one who deserves our respect as a thoughtful, dedicated musician. It’s time to stop hating on the one they call Shaq Fu.
No one had ever heard a basketball player rap when number one draft pick Shaquille O’Neal stepped onto Arsenio Hall’s stage on December 2, 1992. He was the Orlando Magic’s golden child, one month into his rookie season, squeezing the late night appearance in between games against the Sonics and the Lakers. Eschewing the traditional chopper suit-and-tie uniform of media trained athletes, he rocked a blood red trucker vest with matching baggy pants. At 20 years old, Shaq represented a new generation of NBA superstars who had been raised on golden era hip-hop. After chatting with Arsenio, Shaq grabbed the mic and hit the stage with his favorite group, the Fu-Schnickens, to perform his verse from a brand new song called “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock).”
'I don’t want to rap by myself,' Shaq told his label. 'My concept is to rap with all my favorite artists.'
Celebrities had been trying to kick rhymes since the days of "Rappin’ Rodney," but this was something different. Shaq clearly understood the nuance of hip-hop, and his first verse was an affable introduction that included some topical, chuckle-worthy boasts, shouting out his team’s CEO and taking shots at his Draft Day rivals: "Forget Tony Danza, I'm the boss / When it comes to money, I'm like Dick DeVos / Now who's the first pick? Me. Word is born'in / Not a Christian Laettner, not Alonzo Mourning." His unexpected flow stole the show, and Jive Records offered him a two-album deal the next day. "I don’t want to rap by myself,” he told the label, according to his 2011 memoir Shaq Uncut. “My concept is to rap with all my favorite artists.”
"What’s Up Doc?" became a Top 40 Pop hit, and his Jive debut, Shaq Diesel, was released a year after his Arsenio appearance. The album perfectly captured the sound of 1993 hip-hop, walking the line between hard-hitting New York jazz rap and West Coast G-Funk. With beats from Erick Sermon, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Def Jef, and Main Source’s K-Cut, Shaq avoided corny crossover attempts in favor of authentic hardcore rap that put the focus on rhymes instead of gimmicks. The highlight was the Sermon-produced "I’m Outstanding," where he pays tribute to his parents for keeping his head on straight while coming up in Newark: “You gave me confidence, to stop the nonsense / Didn't live in Bel Air, like the Fresh Prince / Times are hard, times are rough / Didn't have Toys R Us toys, but I had enough love.” Shaq’s rhymes could be simple, and at times clumsy, but his combination of earnest effort, husky voice, and goofy sense of humor made him hard to hate. “Of course, Shaq is easily the best rapper in the NBA,” said Entertainment Weekly writer David Thigpen in a review of his debut. “Unfortunately, that's something like being the best bobsledder in Jamaica.”
Celebrating Shaq Diesel's platinum success alongside Jive's Janet Kleinbaum, Barry Weiss, and The Box's John Robson. / Image via Billboard, 1994.
With its first few singles in regular rotation on radio, BET, and MTV, Shaq Diesel went platinum in early 1994. His sophomore album, Shaq Fu: Da Return, was released later that year, boasting a hip-hop fan’s dream lineup, including Redman, Keith Murray, Erick Sermon, Warren G, RZA, Method Man, and Onyx producer Chyskillz. Shaq had a knack for creating music that had a hardcore aesthetic, while shrewdly avoiding the Parental Advisory Explicit Content that would get him in trouble with the NBA and his corporate sponsors. “Life's a B and then ya D / Refer to Nasty Nas Illmatic CD, #3!—Static, ya don’t want none,” he cleverly self-censored on the Wu-Tang collaboration “No Hook.” In the song’s menacing video, Shaq dodged swinging hooks in a dark meat locker while rocking a black skully that featured the acronym of his new record label “T.W.Is.M.” (The World Is Mine).
The B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret compilation was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Shaq’s career as a musician.
A week after the release of Shaq-Fu, Sony Records dropped a compilation inspired by Shaq’s success called B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret, featuring a lineup of ten rapping NBA players, including Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. The tracks showcased the hip-hop fantasies of the NBA’s new generation, whether it be Cedric Ceballos bragging about the honeys on his nuts on "Flow On," or Dana Barros repeatedly warning listeners that he stays strapped on "Check It." Compared to Shaq’s relatively down-to-earth persona, it all seemed like an act. Shaq contributed a song to B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret, but the album was probably the worst thing that could have happened to his career as a musician, since it changed the popular narrative from “Damn, Shaq is rapping!” to “Damn, it seems like every ball player is trying to rap, and they’re all pretty bad.” It’s a narrative that persists today, when Shaq is lumped in with every awkward attempt rapping, from Kobe’s Tyra Banks duet to Lamar Odom’s bathroom selfie disaster.
Shaq switched from Jive to Interscope Records for his third album, You Can’t Stop The Reign, which was released in late 1996, after he moved to L.A. to play with the Lakers. The album represented a noticeable change in Shaq’s style, as he evolved away from hardcore hip-hop towards the glossy aesthetic of the jiggy era. Aside from two standout tracks that featured Biggie and Jay-Z, the album was filled with forgettable moments, including corny remakes of Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile” and Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” The all-star guest list was noticeably slimmer, too. “The first time around, everyone wanted to record something with me,” Shaq reflected years later. “Now all of a sudden they’re calling up and saying they’ll do it but they want $200,000.” The album introduced a number of unknown R&B singers and featured Shaq’s new T.W.Is.M. rapper, Peter Gunz, on several songs.
His fourth album, Respect released in 1998, continued the trend toward generic jiggy schlock. Aside from a DJ Quik appearance, the album was completely devoid of big name guests (the recent success of Peter Gunz probably convinced him that he could make his own stars). In a review for VIBE, Complex’s Editor-in-Chief Noah Callahan-Bever wrote that all 19 songs on the album “straddle the line between mediocre and unlistenable.” The problem was that Shaq had forgotten his mission statement—he got into this thing as a humble hip-hop fan who just wanted to jump in a cipher with his favorite MCs. On Respect, Shaq sounds like he’s trapped alone in the T.W.Is.M. office, bored and burdened with stress of being the boss.
Shaq used his power as a celebrity to expose the masses to the fundamentals of hip-hop—dope beats and playful rhymes—rather than gimmicky pop rap.
Shaq would never recapture the winning formula of Shaq Diesel and Shaq Fu, but that doesn’t change the fact that he released two decidedly solid mid-’90s hip-hop albums (plus a dope duet with Biggie). There’s certainly no other ball player who can make that claim. It’s hard to imagine Allen Iverson making a song as honest and affecting as "Biological Didn’t Bother." Sure, he hasn’t made any certified classics, and he isn’t an amazing MC, but on the strength of his accomplishments, Shaq deserves as much respect as any number of mid-tier ’90s hip-hop acts, like Ill Al Skratch, Nine, Original Flavor, Blahzay Blahzay...or even the Fu-Schnickens. Other rapping basketball players simply do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Shaquille O’Neal.
It’s a shame that, even during his best years, Shaq was never fully embraced by the wary hip-hop media or the core rap audience. Whether or not he was conscious of it, Shaq waged a cultural war on behalf of hip-hop by creating authentic, profanity-free rap music. Think about it: You’re a cautious parent in 1994, and your kid loves hip-hop. You browse the Sam Goody shelves for an album that doesn’t have a Parental Advisory sticker. Your choices are slim: Coolio, PM Dawn, Kris Kross, Arrested Development, Hammer. And then you see Shaq Diesel. Your kid already loves basketball, so it’s a no-brainer. The fact that Shaq used his power as a celebrity to expose the masses to the fundamentals of hip-hop—dope beats and playful rhymes—rather than gimmicky pop rap (or no rap at all) is the most important reason why he deserves our respect. Who knows how many kids he influenced to write their own rhymes, or learn about A Tribe Called Quest. Shaq was always on our team.