Basketball Hall of Fame

‘Shaq Diesel’

An oral history of professional sports’ only platinum album

[talkingheads]



The lead spark plug of the frenetic hip-hop trio known as the Fu-Schnickens was being inundated by prank calls. Someone claiming to be NBA rookie phenomenon Shaquille O’Neal had been phoning. And phoning.

It was early summer of 1993. And Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford was not amused.

This was the era of Juice, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Vibe, The Source, and Rap Pages. The end of the first chapter of Michael Jordan’s reign. This was Phat Farm and Cross Colours’ time. The era of Arrested Development, as well as Doggystyle and Don’t Sweat The Technique. Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.

The rowdy Fu-Schnickens were already gold-certified with their 1992 debut F.U. Don’t Take It Personal. In the process of recording their follow-up album during the late spring of ’93, they teamed up with the Orlando Magic’s speedy, slam-dunking, shot-blocking, backboard-crashing, Omega-stomping center for the gold single “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock).” And since then, the group had been caught up in the media hurricane known as S-H-A-Q.

Rookie O’Neal. By the end of his 19-year Hall of Fame career, the celebrated center would earn 15 All-Star selections, an MVP, and four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. In 2016, O’Neal is one of the NBA’s most vital ambassadors, a cranky analyst, and one of the most bankable pitchmen in sports. He’s a global celebrity and has accumulated a net worth of more than $400 million.

But in ’93? “Because of ‘Doc?’,” said Roachford with a laugh, “everybody was calling my house trying to imitate Shaq’s voice. So I hung up the phone, thinking it was another joke and the phone rings again and this voice says, ‘Yo, Chip, stop playing. It’s me, sir.’ That’s when I knew it was really Shaquille because he always said ‘sir.’ So we’re talking and he says, ‘I need you to help me write my album.’ I just stared at the phone like, Huh?”

Recorded over the summer and released Oct. 26, 1993, on the brink of his sophomore season, O’Neal’s Shaq Diesel (Jive Records) ended up defying naysayers by invading hip-hop and pop culture and selling more than a million copies. The album spawned two Top 40 singles, “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock)” and “(I Know I Got) Skillz,” three hit videos, and astonishment from music industry insiders not yet upended by the iPod and the internet and the confluence of professional basketball and hip-hop culture.

Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Deion Sanders, Chris Webber and Andre Rison are just some of the athletes who have tried to rock the mic. They stumbled. The Chicago Bears did hit gold with their 1985 novelty single, “Super Bowl Shuffle.” But O’Neal is the first and only professional athlete to make a credible mark on the music game.

That summer, though, the one after O’Neal concluded one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history — 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.5 blocks per game — there was the matter of making his idea a reality. Just days after the phone call, a limo pulled up to the modest Brooklyn home of Roachford’s parents. O’Neal greeted a throng of shocked onlookers, and was soon sitting on the floor in Roachford’s bedroom. Not only did the self-proclaimed “rap fanatic” know rhymes, line for line, from much of LL Cool J, Rakim, and KRS-One’s catalogs, O’Neal also obsessively penned his own lyrics, and frequently freestyled with boyhood friends from Newark, New Jersey, high school buddies in San Antonio, and homies from his legendary run as a Louisiana State University Tiger. When it came to rhyming, O’Neal was a serious student: Forget Tony Danza/I’m the boss/When it comes to money, I’m like Dick DeVos, he spit on “What’s Up Doc?”: Now’s who’s the first pick? Me, word is born’in/Not Christian Laettner, not Alonzo Mourning/That’s OK, not being braggadocious/Supercalifragelisticshaq is alidoucious! This guy.

“If I was going to make an album,” says O’Neal, “it was going to have to be done right. 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. It was just me as a young brother saying, You know what? My mama said I could fulfill all my dreams. Let me fulfill this dream as a rapper.

Featuring a ragtag crew of emcees and producers, including Roachford and the Fu-Schnickens, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Phife Dawg, EPMD’s Erick Sermon, Main Source’s Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie, and Harlem’s own West Coast standout Jeffrey “Def Jef” Fortson, Shaq Diesel enjoyed crossover success at a time when rap still placed third behind R&B and the last days of rock. Going platinum in the early ’90s was not the norm in hip-hop — rap’s commercial renaissance, headlined by Ice Cube, Death Row Records, Bad Boy, the Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill and Organized Noize, was just starting to heat up. But O’Neal — Shaq-Fu, as he was known for a brief and shining moment — pulled it off with his famous and disarming charm.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Shaq Diesel era.

The Pregame


Winter 1992 – Spring 1993

It was up to Jive Records A&R executive Jeff Sledge to cobble together a team. Now all he had to do was persuade the rest of the music industry to play ball.

Brian Schmitz
Senior sports columnist, The Orlando Sentinel

This guy fell from the stars. When you’re a small market franchise, just starting out, and you land a once-in-a-lifetime player like Shaquille O’Neal — the most dominant big man since Wilt Chamberlain — and then you add that larger-than-life personality, it’s a giant coup. Early on, you could see Shaq had designs on being an entertainer … It was clear from the beginning — he was interested in rap.

Scoop Jackson
Editor, SLAM

If you’d gone to Magic practices, and really paid attention to what Shaq was doing at LSU off the court, you knew he loved to rap. He was pretty decent at it. I wasn’t surprised at all that he’d make an album. It was just a matter of whether or not it would be corny.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

Basketball and hip-hop made me who I am today. As a kid coming from the projects, life is full of dreams — when I saw LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and Eric B and Rakim rapping with those dookie rope chains and Kangols, and the cars, I wanted that. And when I’d go out on the basketball court and see guys playing smooth like Dr. J — I wanted to be that, too.

One of Shaq’s heroes: LL Cool J at Hanover Nightclub in London, 1985. (Photo by Terry Lott/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images)

Leonard Armato
O’Neal’s agent, 1992–2001

I knew Shaq was interested in various areas of entertainment. When we first began working together I told him, ‘You need to maximize your potential.’ I knew there was an opportunity to do something remarkable — that included Madison Avenue, movies, television and, of course, music. Because Shaq loved rap music. Every time I’d go for a ride with him, he’d play it so loud, it would almost split my eardrums [laughs].

Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Founding member of A Tribe Called Quest; produced Where Ya At?

Shaq had a Suburban, the one with the Superman S on the front. Talk about low-end theory … there was so much bass in Shaq’s car … It was like, What did I do to upset this man who is abusing my eardrums and my body?

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I remember that! I took all the seats out, and put nothing but speakers in it. I called it The Van of Death [laughs]. When Ali was in my car I said, ‘Yo, this is my favorite song that you did.’ I played him [A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991] “Butter.”’ I was trying to show him why his production was so masterful, and Ali’s like, ‘Yo, man … can you turn it down?’ And I’m like, ‘No … this is your beat!’

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Shaq appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show [on Dec. 2, 1992]. And he said he would only come on if he could rap. At that time, his favorite hip-hop group was the Fu-Schnickens, who just so happened to be signed to Jive. They were doing well with their songs “La Schmoove” and “True Fuschnick”, so Shaq and the Fu-Schnickens performed together on Arsenio. The guy who owned Jive Records, Clive Calder, watched the show and told us, ‘Sign Shaquille O’Neal to do an album.’ All of us were kind of like, ‘Really? He plays basketball. He’s not a rapper.’

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I didn’t want to come on Arsenio with an expensive suit and talk about how much money I had. So Arsenio, who’s a good friend of mine, said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I told him I wanted to rap with the Fu-Schnickens. I used to bust freestyles, write rhymes and put songs together and all that stuff, but I never really performed. I thought Arsenio was going to say no, but he was like, ‘OK … I’ll hook it up.’

Shaq’s hip-hop family: the Fu-Schnickens on The Tonight Show in 1992. (Photo by Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

That was the million-dollar question: could this guy actually carry off a whole song — much less a whole album? We found out quickly the answer was yes. The Fu-Schnickens were very credible at the time. And they had a great bond with Shaquille. Particularly, the tradeoff between Chip Fu and Shaq just seemed to fit. Chip was an amazing rapper. And Shaq was a good rapper … much better than people expected him to be.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

I was told, ‘This is going to be your project. You’re the point person for this joint. Go get busy.’ I brought in Chip Fu, who helped Shaq through a lot of stuff and showed patience in teaching him how to rhyme on record, how to have proper cadence, and how to have a proper flow. Chip was his rap coach.

Def Jef
Rapper, DJ, co-produced and appeared on Shaq Diesel’s “(I Know I Got) Skillz”

I remember my friend calling me, 7 in the morning like, ‘Turn on the TV. Shaq is on NBA Inside Stuff rapping with the Fu-Schnickens!’ The Fu-Schnickens brought Shaq to the forefront. They were big-time at that moment. Chip really validated Shaq.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

The Fu-Schnickens taught me how to put songs together, and how to be a professional rapper. I really owe a lot to them — especially Chip Fu. He was the one that said, ‘Slow down, say this line like this … emphasize your words, double up on this.’ Chip taught me how to write with substance. He’d tell me, ‘It’s OK to rhyme about personal stuff. You don’t have brag all the time.’

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

We got into the studio with Shaq like, ‘Let’s see what you got.’ We threw on a few beats and he started rhyming. I was like, ‘Well, this is odd.’ For one, Shaq had timing and knew what he wanted to say, and it actually sounded good. He just needed a little polishing up.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

They were thinking, ‘Oh, so this basketball guy wants to be a rapper.’ But when I went in there and spit, they were like, ‘Oh, s—. You serious.’

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

Once we were able to make a deal with Armato, we sprang into action. Any normal, sane record executive would have thought signing Shaquille O’Neal to a record deal was a crazy idea [laughs]. But we thought we’d ride the coattails of the roster we had, and Jive’s credibility. We knew we were going to get a shot at every media outlet.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I had no fear. I was going to sell a lot of albums because people wanted to see what I could do. The haters would buy the album just to say, ‘This m—–f—-r can’t rap.’ That’s just the life I live. When you go to an opposing arena, you got your fans, you got some doubters, and you got some haters. But they all still come to see you perform.

“Basketball and hip-hop made me who I am today.”Shaquille O’Neal

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

A lot of people in the music industry thought Shaq rapping was a gimmick. There were a few producers that turned down the Shaq Diesel project like, ‘Nah, B. I’m not really messing with that.’ Q-Tip being one of them. He wasn’t into it.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Founding member of A Tribe Called Quest

Did that really happen? I had no idea [Tip turned them down].

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Large Professor [of Main Source] also declined. He was one of those elusive artists … all that mysterious s— [laughs]. We ended up going to K-Cut because he had helped him with some of the production on those Main Source records.

Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie
DJ, producer, Main Source member

I did a remix for “La Schmoove”, as well as the original [and never released] “What’s Up Doc?” A few months later, they called and said, ‘Shaquille O’Neal is going to be on the record. You have to remix it.’ I didn’t know who Shaq was at the time, so didn’t think anything of it. They flew me to Orlando. I come out of my hotel room and I see this big dude, and I’m like, ‘What’s up?’ I wasn’t into basketball, so I wasn’t starstruck. But everybody around me was like, ‘Yo, … there goes Shaq!’ Our working relationship was purely music.

Shaq signs autographs — K-Cut is on a really huge phone.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

I wanted producers that had a big bass sound to match Shaq’s big persona. That’s why I picked Erick Sermon and Chyskillz who did a lot of production for Onyx. I got Shaheed Muhammad on the album because he’d produced tracks for the Fu-Schnickens. I had a tight relationship with Tribe from [working] A&R on their albums. And Phife Dawg came onboard because Shaq loved Phife. Everybody loved Phife.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Founding member of A Tribe Called Quest

When I heard some of the songs Shaq had recorded, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s official. Let’s do it.’ I thought it would be great to have Phife involved in [“Where Ya At?”] because Phife, rest in peace, was a crazy sports head.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Phife added a lot of credibility to Shaq Diesel because he was the essence of hip-hop. If you had Phife Dawg on your album, people knew it was real. And Phife loved the fact that Shaq was a basketball player who loved to rap.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

Whenever Phife would come to the studio, I’d always want to talk about music — but he’d always talk about sports. He knew more about basketball than me — especially New York-area basketball. At times, I think he felt underappreciated, so when he went in the booth, he always went hard.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

I remember seeing Shaq come into the studio with paper and pieces of napkin. This is how he wrote his rhymes. They were scraps of lines from different places he’d been. So you know, in every city the Magic was playing, Shaq was sitting down, writing lyrics and piecing them together when it was finally time for him to record. Shaq was really showing dedication.

Regular Season Grind


Winter – Summer 1993

O’Neal’s hip-hop dream team was finally coming together. But the unlikely project still needed a veteran hip-hop presence. Enter the Green Eyed Bandit.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Erick Sermon had just left EPMD. He was in a weird space. After the success of EPMD, he didn’t quite know what he was going to do. A lot of people, at that point, still didn’t look at Erick as a producer. So the fact that I recruited him — he was appreciative of that.

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

Shaq already had the record out with the Fu-Schnickens, so I knew he could rhyme. It wasn’t like I was surprised when we started working together. The shocking part was getting that phone call from [Sledge] to produce on such a big record. But then again, Shaq was from Newark and was a big Redman fan. And he knew I was Red’s producer.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

The first recording sessions for “Shoot Pass Slam” we had in Orlando didn’t go that well because Shaq didn’t really know how to project his voice. Erick was a huge help in showing Shaq how to rap during a session.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

To actually get to sit down with Sermon was incredible. Watching him sit next to Shaquille asking him, ‘Do you like this beat?’ and Shaq saying, ‘No …’ was crazy. In my mind, I’m like, ‘Please, give me that beat!’ [Laughs] I was just excited the Fu-Schnickens were going to appear on a Sermon track. When Shaq took the track for “Boom!,” Erick told him, ‘We need this done by tomorrow.’

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

Me and Parrish [Smith] never had a whole bunch of money to do records so … we worked fast to get more recording done. Now I’m with Shaq, and he has tons of studio time and tons of money, but I still worked like I was doing an EPMD record.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

Shaq is off doing interviews. I’m thinking about the conversation that I’d have with Erick about how the song “Boom!” needed to sound explosive.

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

For some reason, the vibe wasn’t right that day. I was trying to get something going, and I couldn’t get it going with a room full of people.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

[O’Neal] goes into the hallway and kicks his rhymes to me. I told him to change a few lines here and there, but Moc told me Shaq didn’t feel right. It was the fear of Erick Sermon being in the room. He’s a legend. We get in the booth and everybody has the jitters. I drop my verse, and there’s no movement from Erick [laughs]. Poc went, Shaq went and then Moc went, and still no movement from Erick Sermon.

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

I told everyone to leave the studio for a while so Shaq was able to get comfortable with me. Next thing you know, it all just started flowing.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I could concentrate better when I was by myself in the studio. When it’s a whole bunch of people, I didn’t really do well. Erick played a beat for a few hours, and I’d write something, and Erick would say, ‘Let me hear what you wrote.’ I’d spit a verse and he would say, ‘Nah, Shaq … do it again.’ Not only were Erick and the other talent on the album great collaborators and producers, they were also instrumental in making sure I didn’t put any bulls— out.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

When we walked back in, Erick tells us, ‘I got a surprise for y’all.’ He turns up the volume and “Boom!” just dropped. The whole room erupted. We knew we had a hit.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I have to thank Chip and my mother for ‘I’m Outstanding.’ Whenever I’d let my mom hear some of the songs I was working on, she would say, ‘That’s OK … but you need to do something old-school.” One day, we were in the house and [the Gap Band’s 1982] ‘Outstanding’ was playing. That’s when I said, ‘Hey, Chip … see if you can get somebody to flip that ‘Outstanding’ beat.’

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

‘Outstanding’ was a very important record for Shaq.

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

When I did the beat for ‘Outstanding,’ I wasn’t expecting that much of a personal record. I was expecting Shaq to brag about what he had achieved in basketball.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

I was tasked with helping Shaq pen ‘Outstanding.’ I’m not Shaquille O’Neal. I’m Chip Fu from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, so I had to read up on him at that time. I researched his stats, Shaq’s stepfather, who was in the army, and who stepped in to become a father figure for Shaq.

It was clear that Shaq put his mom on this pedestal, so I asked Shaq if I could actually speak to his mom.

shaq-and-k-cut-sir-scratch

A kind of sleepy Shaq-Fu sits with Sir Scratch in Orlando, Florida.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Shaq wanted to show he could make a serious record. He wanted to do a song that discussed his background, where he came from, and how important his mom and dad were in his life.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

His mom tells me, ‘Oh, he’s just incredible. Shaquille is bringing a lot of positive attention to the family.’ She starts giving me key points about his life growing up in Newark. Then I went back to his bedroom and sat on his floor while everyone else was outside playing and driving his cars. When Shaq came back to the room, I said some of the words to him, and he just stared at me and said, ‘That’s the song … I have to record that!’ It took him 10 minutes to make ‘Outstanding.’ Shaq told me afterwards that it was easy because he really felt the lyrics to the song.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

When I played ‘Outstanding’ for my mom, she started crying because that song is all about us.

Shaq and his “Outstanding” influence. (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Founding member of A Tribe Called Quest

Shaquille was the top superstar of that time. He welcomed us into his crib like he was somebody we grew up with.

Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie
DJ, producer, Main Source member

Shaq gave us a tour of his home in Orlando. I had my uncle with me, and we were going through the rooms, and we went into Shaq’s bedroom. Shaq had a bed the size of four king-size beds put together [laughs]. It was unreal. His entire crib was phenomenal. His car [collection] was phenomenal. And there were always beautiful women around. I was just a kid back then, so I was blown away like, Who lives like this?

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

I probably got more hate than Shaq when we were working on Shaq Diesel because he was a huge NBA player living in a bubble … in Orlando with his cousin, mom and dad and brothers and sisters. He didn’t have to deal with the politics of making an album. I was dealing with the hip-hop side of it. People in the industry were like, Yo, what are you doing? Why are you making a record with a basketball dude?

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

Shaq would call me late at night while he was on a jet on his way to a game. He’s spitting lyrics to me … People are asking, Yo, who are you listening to rap on the phone? And I’m like, ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, you got practice tomorrow.’ [laughs].

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

There was criticism from the press saying Shaquille should focus more on his foul shooting than on his rap game.

Scoop Jackson
Editor, SLAM

I understood what people were saying about Shaq not taking basketball seriously enough. But I don’t think him rapping had anything to do with what he was contributing on the court. The Magic went from a franchise team to making the NBA Finals in three or four years.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

Criticism only motivated me. For one, the reason I started playing basketball was because my favorite basketball player, Dr. J, was in a movie, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Kareem was in a movie (Airplane!). You can only work on your game three or four hours a day — it’s obvious I did that because … I’m going to be first-ballot alongside A.I. [Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers] and Yao Ming.

Shaq‘s 1993 Rolling Stone cover

Shaq‘s 1993 Rolling Stone cover.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

What people didn’t see was Shaq working on his game that entire time while we were making Shaq Diesel. We’d record during the day and then about 6 that evening Shaq would leave because he had to get to bed, get up and work out with the Magic. He wasn’t running around in the clubs. A lot of nights, we’d be in our hotel rooms at Universal Studios, chilling, ’cause Shaq would be home.

Def Jef
Rapper, DJ, producer

I’d signed a publishing deal in the ’90s with Chrysalis Music, and the person who inked me, Tom Sturges, had a relationship with Shaq’s agent. Tom tells me Shaquille O’Neal is working on an album and he needs an intro. They were close to finishing the album. When Shaq came to listen to the mix for the intro, I threw up a beat that I did. He was like, ‘Yo, what’s this?’

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Jef had a lot of nice insights on what he thought the Shaq record should sound like.

Def Jef
Rapper, DJ, producer

I had a production partner … Meech Wells. Meech and I added the keyboard parts. I’d have to attribute the West Coast sound on ‘(I Know I Got) Skillz’ to Meech. Meech came in with that deep bass, and he added the high-pitched synths because Meech was a West Coast dude. We had no idea that it would be Shaq’s first [official] single.

Playoff Bound


Fall 1993 – Winter 1994

With a rapidly growing list of endorsements under his belt, O’Neal found himself juggling his NBA schedule, grueling workouts, promotional appearances for the recently completed Shaq Diesel and a series of music video shoots. Something had to give — right?

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

Shaq was adept at branding early on — and extending his brand outside of the NBA. And he had a very forward-thinking agent in Leonard Armato. We would have a two-day Shaquille O’Neal Summit where everybody would come to discuss their Shaq product.

Leonard Armato
O’Neal’s agent, 1992–2001

We did the first Shaq Summit at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Each company representative would stand up and talk about what they were doing so everyone was on the same page. We had Viacom on board, Disney, Paramount, Electronic Arts, Spalding, Reebok, Pepsi and Jive Records. We wanted to take all aspects of marketing, entertainment and technology and combine them in a way that was synergistic so that Shaq’s profile and brand would grow.

Brian Schmitz
Senior sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel

The public was just really drawn to Shaq. Everybody was looking for the next big thing. And Shaq was it.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I remember my marketing professor said, ‘Put together something that we can sell in the future.’ I came with the Shaq shoes, Shaq underwear, Shaq everything. And my professor says, ‘That’s good, but obviously you didn’t put much thought into it, because there’s a reason there are no big guys endorsing products. Big guys don’t sell.’ A few years later, when I got drafted, I made a bold move with Reebok. I said, ‘You guys need to let me produce my first commercial,’ which was the ‘Don’t Fake The Funk On The Nasty Dunk.’ That commercial put me on the scene.

Leonard Armato
O’Neal’s agent, 1992–2001

What we were trying to do is redefine the way people viewed athletes. I don’t want to be throwing out numbers, but his endorsements his rookie year were around $20 million. Shaq was the forerunner of a lot of stuff LeBron [James] is doing today. You see LeBron doing movies now and getting involved in television. But I don’t think he’s going to start rapping [laughs].

Janet Kleinbaum
Director of product management and video promotion at Jive Records

Back then we had MTV, BET, and local video shows like Video Music Box. I don’t recall ever having a problem getting Shaq’s videos played. People wanted to be involved in the Shaquille O’Neal business. He was already a pop culture icon.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

Shaq wasn’t showing up late to the video shoot with 60 people and taking two hours to come out of the trailer. He’d already done a lot of commercials, and his agent was setting him up to get into more movies. Shooting a video for him was pretty easy.

Janet Kleinbaum
Director of product management and video promotion at Jive Records

We were able to cross over with Shaq, but that wasn’t the norm for a lot of rap artists back then. You want to talk about a group that was hard to get on MTV? A Tribe Called Quest. They are arguably Jive Records’ greatest hip-hop group of all time, and it was a struggle to get them played every time they put out a record. This was the time when radio was still a bit segregated, but Shaquille’s celebrity helped him to break that barrier. If he was just a regular rapper, they would have told him, ‘No … but you can be on Yo! MTV Raps at 10 p.m.’

“Shaq was the forerunner of a lot of stuff LeBron [James] is doing today.”Leonard Armato

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

It was very hard to hear hip-hop music on mainstream radio. But Shaq had two things going for him: He was able to have dope records, but he was also a phenomenon in the NBA. When people heard Shaq rhyme, they couldn’t deny it.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

When the Shaq Diesel album came out and folks started to hear the records and see the videos they had to admit, Oh … this is kind of dope. ‘I’m Outstanding’ became a very big record for us. I remember people started coming up to me like, ‘How did you pull this s— off? This album is actually good.’

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

The blessing and the curse was the fact that Shaq really didn’t have a lot of time to work the project, but he was so efficient. If you don’t have that sense of efficiency and work ethic, you are not going to really succeed when you are juggling the things that Shaq was juggling.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

We were getting media looks that a lot of rappers weren’t getting. Some people were mad that we were on The Today Show and Good Morning America. Back then, rap getting on those shows just didn’t happen. But Shaq had a massive legion of little kids who really loved him. We marketed the album to those same kids. Shaq Diesel wasn’t being bought by the same fans picking up a Redman album or a Wu-Tang Clan album.

The album art for Shaq Diesel.

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

People that thought Shaq was a joke from the very beginning got to the point where they had to admit, ‘Wait a minute. I must be an idiot if I’m not taking this as seriously as everybody else in the country.’ Shaq’s music was shooting up the charts. People interviewing him were not just asking him about his basketball stats and being the star of the Orlando Magic. It was becoming, ‘All right, all that stuff is good. But can you kick a rhyme?’

We Are The Champions


Spring 1994

This was new territory. And Shaquille O’Neal would not be denied.

Def Jef
Rapper, DJ, producer

I wasn’t shocked when Shaq Diesel went platinum. I never felt like it was a novelty. He rewrote lyrics in the studio in the spirit of the true emcee.

Erick Sermon
MC, producer, half of EPMD

Shaq going platinum is a feat that he’ll be able to hold up for a long time. I mean, don’t forget he later rhymed with Biggie Smalls [the Notorious B.I.G. joined Shaq on 1996’s ‘You Can’t Stop The Reign’], something a lot of rappers during that era did not ever do.

Barry Weiss
Chief executive officer of Jive Records

I remember doing a platinum album presentation at Planet Hollywood in Orlando. To have a platinum record — and follow that up with a gold album [1994’s Shaq Fu: Da Return] was miraculous coming from an athlete. That hasn’t been done since.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I wasn’t even after record sales. I was making $15 million my first year in the NBA. When they handed me that platinum plaque, I was just thinking of me as a kid riding in my little truck with no rims listening to EPMD. I almost started crying. I have so much respect for what hip-hop artists do.

Jeff Sledge
A&R executive at Jive Records

I just laughed at those other athletes trying to rap. Deion Sanders, Allen Iverson, and all these other cats … back then all these guys started building recording studios in their mansions. There was a flood of athletes trying to be hip-hop stars and a lot of them had record labels, but they were being ripped off because they were doing records that were never going to come out.

“We were able to cross over with Shaq, but that wasn’t the norm for a lot of rap artists back then.”Janet Kleinbaum

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford
Member of Fu-Schnickens

All of these NBA players and athletes wanted to make rap records. They had a secret passion to actually be emcees. Some of them were pretty good, but it was Shaq who set the trend.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

The reason I’m the only athlete to go gold and platinum is that I concentrated on music and basketball equally. On the way to the court, I mimicked all my favorite rappers. And when I got to the court, I mimicked all my favorite basketball players. I took hip-hop seriously.

Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie
DJ, producer, Main Source member

You have to remember, back then there wasn’t a lot of rappers going platinum. So for Shaq Diesel to go platinum — it was a dream. And I was a part of that.

Janet Kleinbaum
Director of product management and video promotion at Jive Records

Shaq was America’s darling. There was a certain cache that came along with Shaquille O’Neal.

Scoop Jackson
Editor, SLAM

People still don’t understand how huge Shaq was. He was one of those transcendent figures … you could not give a f— about basketball, and you still knew who he was. He would make a movie like Kazaam, a crazy-a– film that nobody should have ever made [laughs]. He was never looking for critical acclaim. Shaq just wanted to have fun and he’s never changed. He’s the same way on TNT. ‘Shaqtin A Fool’ is the best thing on that show.

Brian Schmitz
Senior sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel

We’ve all evolved as far as coming to terms with athletes having outside interests. But back then, because Shaq was the No. 1 pick and because he was the star of the team, he did face that criticism. We couldn’t quite accept how a guy could be making an album and still be the star of the team.

Leonard Armato
O’Neal’s agent, 1992–2001

I will definitely be there for his Hall of Fame induction. I’m really proud of my time with Shaquille O’Neal. A couple of weekends ago, he came down to my house with his kids and I had my kids. We were playing beach volleyball in front of my house. We sat down together, and Shaq goes, ‘Wow, isn’t this crazy?’ It was really unreal. There were so many things we did that were unique and special and innovative. What a great run.

Shaquille O’Neal
NBA Hall of Famer

I can say I’ve made music with Erick Sermon, Redman, Jay Z, Wu-Tang, Nas, Biggie, Fat Joe, Big Pun, DJ Quik, Snoop, the Fu-Schnickens, Heavy D, Michael Jackson, George Clinton, and Roger Troutman. That’s a hell of a discography. Like I said before, hip-hop made me who I am. So whether Shaq Diesel went platinum, gold, or wood, once I got in the studio with my favorite artists and put those songs together, I knew I’d made it. I knew I earned their respect. I want to tell everyone who took part in the making of Shaq Diesel: Thank you.

In his hip-hop glory: rocking out at the Beat Summer Jam in 1997 in Irvine, California. (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)

Where they are now:

Brian Schmitz: Senior sports columnist at the Orlando Sentinel

Scoop Jackson: ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine writer and TV producer

Shaquille O’Neal: Inside the NBA analyst, DJ, businessman, brand ambassador, and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer

Leonard Armato: Founder and CEO of Management Plus Enterprises

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: Veteran producer, radio host, co-scored music for the Netflix’s new Luke Cage

Jeff Sledge: Vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records

Barry Weiss: Cofounder of the independent label RECORDS

Jeffrey “Def Jef” Fortson: Television producer, composer, and writer

Roderick “Chip Fu” Roachford: Reggae artist and rapper; produces and performs under the moniker Jungle Rock Jr.

Kevin “K-Cut” McKenzie: DJ and producer; currently touring with pop vocalist Kiki Rowe

Erick Sermon: Veteran producer and emcee; recently released his seventh solo studio album, E.S.P. (Erick Sermon’s Perception), and is currently on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of EPMD

Janet Kleinbaum: Director of marketing communications for ELMA Philanthropies

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."