When you think of Shaquille O’Neal, who is set to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, what’s the first thing that pops in your head? Those two handed, rim-hangin’ dunks that tore down backboards? Perhaps the meme-tastic, Buster Keatonesque slapstick he’s given us as part of his TNT gig. Maybe Kazaam? Probably all of those things. But on the eve of his introduction into the Hall and the 20th anniversary of his greatest hits album, you might want to bump Shaq’s under-appreciated, surprisingly successful hip hop career up the list.
Let’s start with the successful part. The Big Aristotle’s first album, the wonderfully named Shaq Diesel, went platinum. Granted, this was in an era when people still bought albums, but those albums cost just shy of $20. More than a million people shelled out an Andrew Jackson for the right to own the budding NBA superstar’s side project. The album produced a pair of RIAA certified Gold, Top 40 singles: the party anthem “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock)” and the braggadocio “(I Know I Got) Skillz.” The Diesel’s follow up album Shaq Fu: Da Return found it’s audience as well, selling enough to be Certified Gold and allowing the self proclaimed Superman to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
You might be rolling your eyes right now, thinking that Shaq’s success was just a novelty, his commercial prosperity the result of his worldwide fame. Tell that to the laundry list of other pro ballers who dipped their toe into the hip-hop pool. NBA superstars such as Chris Webber, Allen Iverson, even Shaq’s ol’ frenemy Kobe Bryant, to name but a few, attempted to break into the hip hop scene. None of these guys reached anywhere near the heights in the music industry as The Big Cactus, despite their equal fame. Clearly, O’Neal’s musical achievements were more than just a force of personality.
The astonishing collection of hip hop heavyweights involved in the making of Shaq’s albums really drives home this point. In fact, Shaq went out of his way to include the era’s biggest names in his music, even telling his label “I don’t want to rap by myself. My concept is to rap with all my favorite artists.” Mission accomplished, big man. Phife Dawg, Def Jef and Erick Sermon were heavily involved in the production of O’Neal’s debut album. Wu-Tang members Method Man and RZA, along with Redman and Warren G, had a hand in Shaq Fu: Da Return, producing and appearing on multiple tracks. These 90’s hip hop luminaries all saw enough in Shaq’s rap skills to lend their prodigious talents to his career, providing the big man with a legitimacy he may not have otherwise had.
But believe it or not, these aren’t even the most impressive collaborations Shaq managed to wrangle for his albums. His third studio album, You Can’t Stop The Reign, holds a particularly special place in hip-hop. It is one of the only albums in history to feature two of the legit contenders for GOAT: Brooklyn brethren Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. Biggie and Jigga appear on separate tracks, but the fact that they’d lend their respective genius to what could have been considered a gimmick rap career proves that it was anything but. Appearances by Bobby Brown, Mobb Deep and Rakim further up the album’s cred, silencing any critics who didn’t take The Big Shamrock’s music seriously.
If Jay, Biggie, and Wu-Tang aren’t enough to impress you, first of all, why are you such a snob? Second of all, how about Michael Jackson? Yes, the King of Pop himself was so impressed with Shaq’s rapping skills that he had him drop some rhymes on “2 Bad” from The King of Pop’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I album. The verse itself is mostly nonsensical, but how many basketball players can say they had enough musical talent to be recognized by one of the greatest pop acts of all time? Only the Big Baryshnikov.
But what about the music itself? O’Neal’s treasure trove of hip hop genius collaborators could’ve all been for naught if the Diesel’s lyrics weren’t up to snuff. Fortunately, the big man rose to the challenge, avoiding the corny pitfalls many other non-rappers succumb to when trying their hand at hip hop. On Shaq Diesel alone, O’Neal shows his range by throwing serious shade at his draft mates (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) and honoring his parents for keeping him on the straight and narrow growing up (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.)
His parentage is also the subject of Shaq’s most affecting track, “Biological Didn’t Bother,” a sadly too relatable song about his strained relationship with Joe Toney, O’Neal’s biological father. Shaq makes it clear he has no intention of reconciliation and even repeatedly says “Phil is my father,” a reference to his step-father Phillip Harrison. Tracks like this erase any thought that Shaq was in the hip hop game just for a lark.
Of course, any discussion of Shaq’s rap career wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his infamous 2010 Kobe bashing freestyle. Repeating the line “Kobe, tell me how my ass taste” throughout the verse, Shaq says “Kobe couldn’t do without me,” blames Bryant for his divorce and even his vasectomy. Lost in the media freakout that followed the video surfacing is how dope a freestyler Shaq is. For the generation of hip hop fans just young enough to not remember O’Neal’s albums, this verse opened their eyes to his bona fide skills.