Music and sports are connected in their ability to bring people together. At the crux of the two—and likely the outright center of attention—is now-retired basketball icon and current mainstage festival DJ, Shaquille O’Neal.
While a casual fan may only be familiar with his Hall of Fame NBA career, diehards of the legend know he's anything but one-dimensional. His passion drove him to carry out one of the greatest careers in NBA history, but when the lights at the arena went out, O'Neal often sought out his second love: music.
DJ Diesel first began to learn how to mix music back in 1988 while attending and playing basketball at Cole High School in San Antonio, Texas. DJing excited people and brought in an audience, so he gravitated towards what he does best: entertain. This hobby followed him to Louisiana State University, where he began performing for teammates in between games.
"Back in the 80s I was spinning rap, hip-hop, and even R&B," said O'Neal, who caught up with EDM.com after both of his former teams—the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat—faced off in the NBA Finals. "I was that guy on the LSU team spinning in the locker room."
While DJ Diesel is known today for performing larger-than-life dubstep, his music career began with hip-hop in 1993 via his debut studio album, Shaq Diesel. The album—which featured Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Def Jef, and Erick Sermon—went platinum and spurred three more rap projects, effectively relegating DJing to the bench for the remainder of his NBA career. Following his retirement in 2011, he reinvigorated his love for mixing via the high-energy genre of dubstep. Despite the style differences, O'Neal insists he has no preference and enjoys it all.
"Both define me now and then… if that makes sense," said O'Neal. "I will forever love the hip-hop classics. They are a piece of me that inspired Shaq-Fu, among many other personas in my life. [But] my playlists consist of both genres when putting my headphones on and that's how it has to be. Dubstep will continue to run through my veins."
This emergence into EDM—described by O'Neal as a challenge that has provided new meaning in his post-basketball life—was ignited in 2015 while attending the now-defunct Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia dance music festival TomorrowWorld. Having focused on basketball for most of his life, O'Neal resonated heavily with the widespread joy and unity these events inspired.
"To be honest, I didn’t really appreciate and understand the depths of electronic music until [attending TomorrowWorld]," O'Neal told EDM.com. "Being there revitalized a sense of urgency and passion inside of me that I’ve been craving since dunking on a defender's head in the postseason."
Only a few years later, O'Neal has emerged as an eccentric and dynamic headlining addition to the dubstep scene, embraced wholly by his newfound peers. His sold-out "Shaq's Fun House" shows quickly crystallized as must-see events from Vegas to Miami and he has established himself as a highly coveted collaborator in the bass music scene, evidenced by his April 2020 SiriusXM stream that boasted appearances by major artists such as Zeds Dead, NGHTMRE, and Snails, among others.
DJ Diesel has also now performed at Lost Lands, Red Rocks, and fabled Chicago music festival Lollapalooza, where he threw down a landmark set. He is unlikely to perform at any clubs or festivals soon due to the impact of COVID-19, but as for a drive-in show, he appears open to the idea. "A 'Diesel Drive In' has a nice ring to it," he said.
Like all DJs, O’Neal had to adapt this year due to the relentless pandemic, which forced the vast majority of festivals and clubs to postpone or cancel events. Not one to sit idly, O’Neal constructed his own home studio in Atlanta, where he “spent hours a day working on new music.”
DJ Diesel's most recent tune, “Tear It Up,” a collaboration with bass music star Eliminate, is rooted in trap music. He says an EP is on the horizon, as well as more virtual sets and other tricks up his sleeve when it comes to his music. When asked if future productions would incorporate more hip-hop, he simply replied, "Yup," with a grin.
Despite his infectious passion for everything he does, some naysayers still doubt the legitimacy of O'Neal's electronic music aspirations. Celebrities have been known to initiate forays into DJing in order to capitalize on cash grab opportunities, but the DJ Diesel project is anything but a fabrication. His love for music is unassailable and his ability to ignite crowds has returned a sense of fulfillment unmatched since his NBA days.
"The only feeling similar to a game seven monstrous dunk, which I know a lot about, is a dubstep banger blasting out of festival speakers with CO2 and fire going off," O'Neal exults. "Those moments bring people together and I am here for it."