Celebrating Shaq Diesel: A 20-Year Retrospective

I should probably say, before going into anything else, that there are many people in my life who judge my taste in music in a negative fashion. I, as a fan of the #1 frontrunner’s darling of an NBA team, the baseball team with ALMOST the worst owner in sports (thanks, Donald), and the football team with the bullying scandal, am more scrutinized for my taste in music than my taste in sports teams.

I’m sitting on a flight from Washington, DC to Miami as I type this, with no Internet access, so to pass the time I’ve taken a glance at my iTunes to drive this point home: I have over 100 songs by Lil B. I am in a mood to listen to sad tenth-grader music, so I have Taking Back Sunday coming into ears at this very moment. I have several albums by Hole (actually, I’m going to go to my grave defending Hole, which probably strengthens the suspicions of my friends, who are wrong about the pop talents of Courtney Love. YOU LISTEN TO CELEBRITY SKIN AND TELL ME THAT SHE DI… let me collect myself. This is irrelevant, and should have been a footnote).

The piece de resistance in this collection of dubiously good tunes is perhaps my favorite good-bad album: Shaq Diesel by surefire NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille “The Big Aristotle” O’Neal. This was no obscure recording, either; this album actually went platinum in the early 90s. That’s right, somewhere in Shaq’s mansion, among a bunch of gigantic appliances and a bed five sizes above “King” (my guess is that mattresses this size are called “Totalitarian Despot” or “Galactic Overlord”), there is an RIAA-certified Platinum album, engraved with his name. Over 1,000,000 units were moved, a number which is, on one hand, absurdly high, because Shaquille O’Neal is not a talented rapper or musician in any way known to the public. On the other hand, I believe everyone should hear this at least once (or any number up to the ungodly amount I’ve listened to it), and I finally have my chance to evangelize, so I’ve summarized some of the many high points of this very important piece of cultural ephemera.

“Where Ya At” feat. Phife Dawg –

The reader may recognize Phife Dawg as a member of the highly respected hip hop group of yesteryear, A Tribe Called Quest. Phife, given his expertise and experience producing real rap that you can say you enjoy in polite company, probably added some clever wordplay and nice sonic textures to this track, right? Nope, you’re wrong. This is the hook:

“Yo Shaq, where ya at? (I’m over here)”
“Yo Shaq, where ya at? (Yo, yo, I’m over here)”
“Yo Shaq, where ya at? (Hey Phife, I’m over here)”

This is repeated with several slightly different responses a number of additional times. Where are they? Where have Phife Dawg and Shaquille O’Neal gone to record this song, where a.) Phife lost Shaq, a very difficult man to lose, b.) they’re within earshot of each other still, and c.) a funky beat is playing in the background. Probably a cavern of some sort. A cavern I want to go to.

“I’m Outstanding” –

This song immediately greets the listener with a pleasant Yarbrough and Peoples sample, and it talks about Shaq’s childhood struggles and how outstanding he became. Inspirational stuff. Actually, there’s nothing strange about this rap, except for the occasional basketball reference. It’s kind of indistinguishable from your average “came up from nothing” hip-hop story, which makes its inclusion on this zany, bizarre album somehow even more bizarre than everything else. It’s a nice, balanced dinner, eaten in the middle of a ball pit in a McDonald’s play place.

“(I Know I Got) Skillz” feat. Def Jef –

If you were at a Shaquille O’Neal concert (which you weren’t), his biggest fans would scream for (I Know I Got) Skillz at every break in the music. It is his magnum opus, his “Hotel California,” his “Free Bird,” the one song that encompasses everything that Shaq probably set out to do as a rapper. It would be the encore that makes everyone go bananas when he came back out on the stage after pretending to leave the building. From the beginning strains of the highly derivative too-shrill Dr. Dre-inspired G-Funk synth riff that pervades the rest of the song, to the part near the end where the listener is led to believe that the song is over, only for Shaq to say “SYKE” and have the beat play out for another 20 or so seconds, it is a true masterpiece. The following are real lyrics:

“You don’t believe me? The proof is in the pudding/ Been a boy in the hood way before Cuba Gooding” – TOPICAL AND CURRENT!

“I’ll treat you like Spielberg, You’ll get you ass kicked in the park” is the lyric that directly precedes that one. TOPICAL AND CURRENT at every turn. After some more of this in the first verse, Shaq cedes the mic to Def Jef, a man who I will not research because I choose to believe that he existed only for this song, and who stumbled onto one of the more delightful names in all of rap that morning before he headed into the studio. Jef’s verse isn’t good. Sorry Jef. Whereas Shaq mumbles through his amusing, reference-laden romp of a verse, Jef rehashes every rap trope of the era, evidenced by his decision to include the lines and  “Surprise look who’s back/Not a prize from a Cracker Jack/ Look at that, it’s Def Jef with the Shaq Attack” and “Don’t fake the funk, just make the sounds up from the trunk.” Phonin’ it in there, Jef.

Shaq Diesel wasn’t the first musical album, nor was it the first rap album, but it ushered in an era where every skilled basketball player thought he could rap. It led “Basketball’s Best Kept Secret,” a compilation album featuring the “talents” of Cedric Ceballos, Gary Payton, and Jason Kidd. It led to “K.O.B.E.” (feat. Tyra Banks) by Kobe Bryant. It led to “Jewelz” by Allen Iverson (surprisingly silky). The genre then reached its logical conclusion with the famous TMZ video of Shaq’s own impromptu “Kobe, How My A– Taste” nightclub rap, from shortly after he won a ring with the Heat in 2006. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has since dropped off. Which young NBA talent will revive it? Will it be Anthony Davis? Will it be Damian Lillard, whose penchant for exciting haircuts perhaps tells of his potential rap skills? Cody Zeller, maybe? No idea.

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