By the time Shaquille O’Neal wrapped up his first NBA season in 1993, it was clear O’Neal was a global entity whose marketability extended well beyond the confines of the basketball court. Whether it was his best-selling Shaq Attack sneakers, his domination of the sports card market, or serving as a pitchman for Pepsi products, everything Shaq touched in 1993 turned to gold.
His Midas touch gilded the hip-hop realm when the nubile O’Neal kicked a verse on the Fu-Schnickens single, “What’s Up Doc?” helping to propel sales of the song to RIAA Gold certification. O’Neal ‘s microphone exploits turned many heads in the industry, including that of Def Jef (Jeffrey Fortson), a Grammy nominated MC and producer who released two critically acclaimed albums on the Delicious Vinyl imprint. As Fortson watched O’Neal perform on television one morning, the idea of collaboration was spawned by a phone call from one of his close friends.
“My friend Ron Mack saw Shaq rapping on one of those morning shows on TV at seven in the morning,” Fortson said during a recent telephone interview. “I’ve never been a huge sports fan, but I just happened to be watching this show at 7:30 in the morning and Shaq is rapping with the Fu-Schnickens. I was like, ‘Wow, check out Shaq, he can rap.’ My friend Ron calls me and says, ‘Hey you should get up some tracks.’ I said, ‘That’s probably not going to happen, he has the opportunity to work with anybody in the industry he wants to.’”
At the time, Fortson had a publishing deal with Chrysalis for his production crew The Arsenal, which was comprised of Fortson and Meech Wells. As fate would have it, one of the executives at Fortson’s label had a close connection with O’Neal’s agent, opening the door for the two to forge a relationship.
“The person that signed me was named Tom Sturgess… he was friends with Shaq’s agent at the time, Leonard [Armato],” Fortson said. “He called me one day and said, ‘Hey would you be interested in working with Shaquille O’Neal, he needs an intro for his album.’ Tom knew that I was a DJ as well, so the idea was to meet him at the studio and bring a bunch of records where rappers mentioned his name so we can kind of scratch in an intro of all the rappers that said his name.”
While creating the intro for “Shaq Diesel,” Fortson used the opportunity to showcase his production talents to the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year. By the time Fortson arrived, all of the tracks slated for the album were completed; however, one beat Fortson played for O’Neal was so undeniable that the roster was expanded to fit an additional song. That track, which also featured Fortson rapping, became the lead single, “(I Know I Got) Skillz.”
“He [O’Neal] actually told me before we started working, ‘The album is done, I just need an intro,’” Fortson said. “After we worked on an intro, I played a track for him and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think of this track?’… He said, ‘I like that; I want to work on it.’ We kind of worked on that song, ‘Skillz,’ and that set off us working on the first single from his album. I think because his album was done and that song was a new energy, that’s why it became the first single.”
“Skillz,” was a hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Top Rap singles chart, and No. 35 on the Billboard Top 100, ascertaining O’Neal another Gold plaque. His immediate success affirmed that O’Neal could deliver the goods, quieting those outside of the music community who fancied the NBA player as a novelty act.
Core artists of the era openly welcomed O’Neal on the mic because of his budding skill and genuine appreciation of the culture. He aligned himself with such heavyweights as A Tribe Called Quest, Erick Sermon, and the aforementioned Fu-Schnickens.
“He reached into the music community,” Fortson explained. “It was an opportunity to work with Shaq because I thought he was good. I didn’t just jump at the chance because he was Shaq. When I first saw him rapping with the Fu-Schnickens, I was like, ‘Shaq can rap,’ because it could have gone the other way. At the time I was a producer and I had success as a producer, so I didn’t look at this as an opportunity like Shaq would help me get a plaque. It was more like let’s work on this and it’s awesome. Plaques and all of that [expletive], that is a by-product of trying to make something good; doing your best to make something great. We all worked on something great and we were rewarded for it.
“Let’s take a step back, A Tribe Called Quest was huge; they weren’t some fledgling rap group. They were A Tribe Called Quest, the standard in hip-hop, [at least] one of them. They were a very credible, respected rap group. … Everyone he worked with was successful. Erick Sermon, EPMD, people [that] had status in the music business. … He aligned himself rightfully so and smartly about it with his hip hop heroes.”
O’Neal took the same work ethic he had from the sports world and applied that to his approach in the studio. Fortson said that O’Neal showed a tremendous amount of respect to a world where he was no longer the main attraction, not only by how he carried himself in the studio, but also his pride for writing his own songs.
“Every line that Shaq said on the several songs we worked on was his lyrics,” Fortson said. “He might have mentioned a lyric to me and said, ‘Is this pretty good?’ He was 100 percent professional in the studio. He was never late. The guy worked like he respected the craft. At that point, he was probably a millionaire. He was doing really well and brought none of that energy into the studio. He was 100 percent dedicated to making something good. He would spit lyrics for me and say, ‘Hey what do you think of this?’ He would give me his ideas, but I didn’t write one lyric for him. Everything we worked on, he wrote.”
While discussing Fortson’s studio experience with O’Neal, the conversation turned to the few live performances they shared together. Immediately, Fortson recalled a show they did in Minneapolis at Prince’s club, First Avenue, and how it later led to an impromptu meeting at Prince’s studio with the recently deceased superstar.
“I do remember that date in particular because I got to go to Prince’s studio,” Fortson recalled. “I remember going because I remember playing the club and then going to Prince’s studio. I met him [Prince] briefly. One of the guys in his band recognized me. He said, ‘Hey, you’re Def Jef, you’re the rapper. You’re the real deal.’ We exchanged a few niceties and pleasantries. He said, ‘Do you want to meet him? I was like, ‘Sure.’
“This figure scurried by that I didn’t know and he was like, ‘That’s him right there; he went to the bathroom.’ Prince came back out and he was very short. I don’t mean that in a mean way. He was surprisingly much shorter than I anticipated. The guy said, ‘Hey this is Def Jef, he’s a real rapper, he’s the real deal. Prince said, ‘If he says you’re good, I’m sure you’re good. Do you want to go up and do something later?” We were in his rehearsal stage. He had a sound stage in his studio. It was the most amazing place ever; it was like a fun house.”
Fortson’s story was corroborated by MC Supernatural. Known for his tremendous freestyle abilities, Supernatural remains one of the most highly regarded MCs in the game. When reached via telephone shortly after speaking with Fortson, just the mention of Shaq’s name triggered sharp memories of an unbelievable evening.
“It’s definitely a true story,” Supernatural said. “I’ll never forget the night; it was amazing. I remember Shaq coming out doing the running man on stage looking like a giant, like he was getting ready to fall off the stage.”
Supernatural observed that O’Neal was well received within the hip hop community for similar reasons that Fortson earlier expressed; he was real.
“We loved it,” he said. “At that time, Shaq was like that dude. He was fresh in the league, blowing up crazy, doing all types of stuff across the board media wise. When he did that record [Shaq Diesel], it was amazing to be there to see it. He was probably one of the first basketball players ever to do a rap record. That was a big deal to MCs, especially to guys like myself. I always thought it was dope that he was so involved with hip hop.”
O’Neal released three more studio albums, but none had the commercial success as his Platinum debut, despite later enlisting the likes of Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G. Artists and producers sought to capitalize off of Shaq’s fame and budget, charging exorbitant amounts when just a few years earlier they were all posturing for a spot on his album.
“The first time around everyone wanted to record something with me,” O’Neal said in his 2011 autobiography, Shaq Uncut. “Now all of a sudden they’re calling up and saying they’ll do it, but they want $200,000.”
Fortson remained proud that he was able to work with O’Neal at the developing stage of his rap career, well before finances complicated the situation. There was a purity of that experience that couldn’t be duplicated in future efforts.
“I was glad I was in on the ground floor because it was genuine,” he said. “After a couple of albums, people saw a check.
“I think he did his best to honor whomever he listened to because he took time to write his rhymes. People might say he wasn’t saying anything particularly deep, but he was having fun making cool and clever rhymes, and really at the end of the day that’s what hip hop is about.”