When Shaquille O’Neal logs onto Zoom for a quick chat about his new dubstep album, he tells me that he’s at a vacation home in Antarctica. “I bought it online,” he says with a smirk. “Me and my boys, we had a couple of days. ‘Yo, let’s fly and see if we got robbed or not.’ But we didn’t. Nice little log-cabin-style house.”
It looks like he’s on or near a porch; some tall trees are visible behind him. My hunch is that he meant to say “Alaska,” or else the infamous jokester is just fooling around, but unfortunately, our allotted interview time is too short for me to ask a follow-up question about this. Then again, it’s not impossible that Shaq is actually on the short list of people who could realistically find a log cabin on a continent that doesn’t have land for sale. Since being drafted into the NBA in 1992, it’s been Shaq’s world — we’re just living in it.
O’Neal is one of the most identifiable people on earth, and not just because he’s seven feet tall, but because he’s spent the last three decades utilizing his charm and curiosity to explore the entirety of the entertainment field, including the music world. Shaq has released four solo albums as a rapper, starting with 1993’s Shaq Diesel, but he says that DJing has always been his first musical passion.
“I just got away from [DJing] when Jive said, ‘Hey man, we’re going to give you a three-album deal for $10 million,’” he recalls. “’You’re going to do what? All right, I’m a rapper now.’”
But now, the self-proclaimed “dubstep dad” is taking it back to the essence. He’s been DJing as DJ Diesel since 2015, playing electronic music at shows and festivals like Lollapalooza. He’s said that being in the DJ booth in front of thousands of people gives him the rush of his playing days. And this week, he dropped off some assists with Gorilla Warfare, a 10-track dubstep project that he crafted with co-producer and DJ Brian Bayati and 10 rising dubstep acts who he wanted to give shine. Gorilla Warfare isn’t quite the same as what he did in his rap career by collaborating with stars like Biggie and Jay-Z through mutual fandom — here, he sought to share his spotlight with artists that he felt were unheralded.
“I’m getting all this credit as DJ Diesel, but I want to show love to the ladies and gentlemen that [helped] make these tracks,” he says.
Gorilla Warfare, which came together after he and his team vetted more than 100 submissions, is a collection of churning bangers such as the suggestive “Bang Your Head” with Hairitage, where Shaq booms “bang your motherfucking head” over a bouncy synth groove, or “Watch Ur Back,” which starts off like a traditional trap song before the unmistakable EDM breakdowns take over for Blackway’s raps. The project is an unflinching dose of electronic music made for big speakers and sweaty mosh pits. Next month, Shaq will be highlighting some of the acts on Gorilla Warfare at his Shaq Bass All Stars Festival.
“We give the youngsters a chance to shine,” he says. “I’m never the headliner on that. Even though it’s my show, I tell my guys, ‘No, don’t put me last. It ain’t about me, it’s about them.’”
As a player whose hulking presence tilted the axis of NBA power for most of his 19-year playing career, he knows what it’s like for everything to be about him. Now he’s offering that shine to up-and-coming acts with potential.
We talked with Shaq about Gorilla Warfare, DJing, and his future music plans. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
DJ DIESEL @ Lost Lands 2022
How did you go about choosing the guest artists on this project?
When you’re a DJ, you have to know and understand the music. You just can’t play it. We never play the same set. Brian, my partner, and my son Myles, we got a little crew and they just send us music. I’m like, “Damn, who is this?” “Man, it’s some kid from Wyoming, he only got 2,000 followers.” I’m like, “What? For real? We’re going to do a Shaq’s Bass All-Star. Bring this kid out.” I want the world to see this kid. And it is sort of like a giveback. I’m not the guy that just takes their music and says, “Look at me. I’m a big bad DJ.” Nope, you helped me get to the top, I’m going to bring you to the top with me.
How about actually vetting the songs? What’s that like?
It takes a couple seconds. Like, [mimics listening to a song] “Mm, wait a minute.” For me, I’m a sounds guy. Let’s just take it to hip-hop first. I already know who you are, already know you can spit, but that first sound got to get me. And then the intro, and them drums got to be hard. If them drums ain’t hard, I’m hitting that “next” button. I don’t care who you are. So same thing with this. Ooh, what sound is that?
But out of 100 songs, all 100 were like that. So now we got to go back, sort of like a NCAA tourney: “This one and this one.” “You sure? Play it again.” It was no easy process. We’re telling people, “Hey, you got music and you want to get it out there, you send it to us.” But a lot of these people, this is their heart and soul. This is their lifelong dream. So they put everything into it. We just try to pick the 10 hardest ones. But we got so much music that we’re definitely going to come out with more and more albums.
What is it that you love the most about dubstep music in particular?
It’s the hardest genre. When I play basketball, I play the hardest style of basketball. I don’t play finesse. I bang your face, I bang your head, I elbow like I’m in a mosh pit. And if the ref don’t call a foul and you get hurt, that’s your problem. With the hip-hop background, it is 75-150 [BPM]. That’s why Brian and I could take hip-hop songs and put them in there and then drop the dubstep bass line. 128 is cool, but that’s not what we do. I want to do that hard. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen my show. I want people banging out, relieving their stress, mosh pit, having a good time, and then you go home like, “Man, that was a great show.”
Because I take pride in, if you pay money, we got to give you a good show. If I’m in the crowd and the crowd’s going like this [mimics a bored fan], me and Brian, we don’t sleep that night. We go by every song and look at the footage: What did we do wrong? “All right, this song, we never going to play it again.” We’re not happy with just “a lot of people.” Nah, but if there’s 60,000 people in there and that one guy’s not jamming, I’m pissed. Like, “Oh, you don’t like that? All right, what about this one?” I’m focused on that one guy.
I read that you got your first turntable at 14. What was your learning curve like, learning how to DJ at that age?
Well, I actually fell in love with it [when] I went to a Public Enemy concert and saw Terminator X. I’m like, “Damn, I want to be Terminator X.” Because when you’re a kid, you’re a product of your environment. “I want to be Terminator X. Now I want to be LL Cool J. Now I want to be Dr. J.” I told my dad I want to buy these turntables. He said, “I’m not giving you that.” So I had to cut grass and do all this stuff. Boom, boom. And I got some Gemini 1200s and a mixer. I had to teach myself. A couple of my other friends was doing it and I had to learn the music.
I used to already mix songs in my head. Now I got to get the records and see if it works. And that little thing on the side where you can change the tempo…I have to save all my money and buy records, and then I start scratching and doing all that stuff. I did it all the way up to college. I did college parties and rocked out for $50, $100. As a DJ you got to play the hot stuff and you got to bring it in and you got to look at the crowd and you got to know what to play, old stuff, new stuff. And I did that
When I stopped playing ball, I didn’t have that adrenaline fix. I went to Tomorrowland and there were 50,000 people. I got that feeling back. I was like, “Oh yeah, I used to DJ a long time ago.” So I already had the basics, but I just needed to fine-tune. And that’s when me being the Magic Johnson of dubstep — I came across Larry Bird [Brian Bayati] and now we’re unstoppable.
You’ve said when you get up to DJ, you don’t have a set list, you kind of play by ear. Can you take me into that process?
We got a hard drive with 1,000 songs each. I have to look at the crowd first. We had a show in San Francisco the other day [at Outside Lands]. I didn’t know what I was going to play, and I was like, “OK, all right. Got some headbangers. Oh man, there’s a lot of ladies. Brian, get that thing together with all the ladies.” We just got to mix it up. The formula is intro, here I come. Bang your face out, song number two. And then as a DJ you got to play a song that you know everybody going to like, that’s the three.
After that, now I could say, “OK, man, we done banged them out five songs in a row. They look kind of tired,” slow it down, give them a singing ballad. Let them dance. Let them get back into it a little bit and then bring them back up. So it is a formula to DJ, and only a real DJ would know enough to understand that. And Brian is a real DJ. That motherfucker gets down. White boy, too. Woo, cold.
How did you meet him?
Whhen I first started DJing, they put me on the celebrity DJ run. So I had a show at my restaurant. I already know the fans, good or bad, they’re going to like me. I’m there playing and Brian’s in the corner like this [mimics head down]. I said, “Oh, you don’t like this?” This was around the time of “Turn Down for What,” you can play that song anywhere. People like it. So I played that. He looking at me like [mimics head down]. So then after that I was like, “Yo man, you got a problem?” He said, “They said you were DJing. Another celebrity. You have skills, you blended a few songs in, I see, but you want to see a real DJ come upstairs.”
And he left and I was like, “Who the fuck is this dude?” But I own the club upstairs. [Employees were] like, “Yeah, he’s a DJ for you upstairs.” Tore that motherfucker down, all the way down. I said, “OK. I’ll tell you what, won’t you help me be like you?” Because even though I’m Shaq, I don’t have a problem learning. I know if I’m not the best and I step out there, I’m going to get ridiculed. I’m sensitive. I don’t like to get ridiculed. So if I got to go through Navy basic DJ training all over again, which I had to, I’m willing to do that.
What did that basic training entail?
We practice every day. He would fly to Atlanta or we’d do it like we’re doing now on Zoom. And his first thing is like, “Stop looking at the fucking laptop. People pay you $100 to see you engage with the crowd.” Because sometimes I like to play a song and then [mimics looking down at computer] “Oh, that song didn’t work.” He said, “We going to create a hard drive with 1,000 songs. They’re going to be there, BPM, all that stuff.” And then he said, “You got to stop just pressing buttons.” He said, “You can go at the DJ like you used to DJ back in the day.” So I had to just go back to the basics and then just bring it back.
Where’s one place that you haven’t DJ’ed that you’d like to?
Well, that answer would’ve been Bootshaus [in Cologne, Germany], because everybody was telling us, “Man, Bootshaus, Bootshaus.” And listen, being an athlete, you like that challenge. It’s like them saying, “Man, you are a good player. I bet you can’t do that at Rucker Park.” All right, we’ll see. We destroyed Bootshaus. So we pretty much played a lot of places. I can’t answer on where we haven’t played. Done Lollapalooza, done Tomorrowland, I’ve done TomorrowWorld. We’ve got something coming up in China soon. We’re gaining more momentum.