Shaquille ‘DJ Diesel’ O’Neal on how dubstep was the ‘only thing’ that got him out of his post-retirement funk: ‘I was down’

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“When I was growing up, my father made me do a report from A to Z of what I wanted to be,” says multi-hyphenate superstar Shaquille O’Neal, speaking via Zoom with Yahoo Entertainment from his new lake house in a mystery location. “Like, ‘B’ was for basketball player. ‘C’ was a cop. ‘D’ was a detective. ‘E’ was entrepreneur. ‘G’ was a gangster, believe it or not. ‘H’ was house husband — I wanted to marry a rich princess!”

Obviously O’Neal’s plan “B,” so to speak, worked out. The ambitious adolescent grew up — very up, to a towering height of 7-foot-1 — to play for six NBA teams over his two-decade basketball career. A four-time champion, he is considered one of the greatest basketball centers of all time. But “D” on his childhood career-aspirations list could have just as easily stood for “DJ.” At age 14, after being wowed at his “favorite concert” by Public Enemy’s Terminator X, he saved up his earnings from odd jobs to buy his first set of turntables, for $200, from a pawn shop, and he started DJing local high school and college parties. “But I got away from [DJing] when Jive said, ‘We’ll give you $10 million, we’ll do three albums.’ I was like, ‘Um, I’ll do it,’” he chuckles.

What ensued was Shaq’s surprisingly successful hip-hop career in the ‘90s, coinciding with the peak of his NBA fame, with several Billboard Hot 100 hit singles and albums for Jive Records that sold gold or even platinum. Many years later, he experienced a similarly life-changing concert epiphany at 2014’s TomorrowWorld electronic music festival, where he witnessed performances by superstar DJs Tiesto and especially Skrillex — “I was like, ‘You know what? This right here is what I want to do!’” — and he orchestrated yet another career reinvention.

Now known as DJ Diesel (or as the “Dubstep Dad” to the young EDM fans who’ve witnessed his sets at Lollapalooza, EDC Las Vegas, or his own Shaq’s Bass All Stars fest), O’Neal is releasing his first full-length studio album in 25 years, Gorilla Warfare. And it’s a dubstep album.

O’Neal, who has long been open about his mental health, credits dubstep music, his new passion, for jolting him out of the depressive mind-state he found himself in after he retired from playing professional basketball in 2011. “I don’t like to use the D-word,” he stresses, referring to “depression” in this instance. “Because I know a lot of people are really going through that stuff, and I really have nothing to make me feel like that. But yes, I was definitely in a funk. … Music was the only thing that got me [out of it].”

Shaq explains, “When I DJ, it gives me the same adrenaline rush as a playoff championship game. That’s why I do it. For 10 years after I retired, I didn’t have that. I would get it in spurts. I’d go to a restaurant, and [fans would yell], ‘Shaq!’ — and then done. I needed more. So, when I went to see Tiesto perform for 100,000 people, hit that, I was like, ‘I’ve never seen nothing like this before. … This feels like a championship parade.’”

O’Neal explains that “from 13 to 39,” all he knew was the high that came from being a hailed as sports hero, “and then I retired, gone, never to be had like that again. I would show up at a couple speaking engagements… I do commercials and all that, but when you go home and sit back, it’s nothing there. Like, after a game, after playing a game, the 15,000 arena that can last me all night, man. You have 40 points and you did this — boom, boom, boom. Like, that can last you. But this, ‘What’s up, Shaq?’ is like just getting out like a eye-dropper and putting it on your tongue. So, the DJ thing definitely brought my spirits up a lot. … When you’re being a DJ, it’s nonstop. When you’re playing basketball, it’s nonstop. I was definitely missing that.”

Diesel, aka Shaquille O'Neal, performs at Lollapalooza on Aug. 4, 2023. (Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Diesel, aka Shaquille O’Neal, performs at Lollapalooza on Aug. 4, 2023. (Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Shaq clarifies that it wasn’t the celebrity status he was missing per se, insisting, “I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I’ve denounced myself being a ‘celebrity.’ Those people are crazy. I don’t want be in that box!” In fact, when he first crashed TomorrowWorld and quickly decided that he wanted to pursue a career in dubstep (“I like that make-a-hard-face music, like you wanna just push somebody out the way or bump shoulders with somebody”), he wasn’t too thrilled when festival promoters “put me on the celebrity circuit.” He wanted to be treated like any other new DJ on the scene and work for techno fans’ respect — the same way he’d once built his reputation as a promising young B-ball player, when he “went from 500 people to 1,000 people waiting for [me] at the gym.”

Shaq recalls with a rueful laugh and shake of his head, “They said, ‘Oh, you wanna be a celebrity DJ, like Paris Hilton?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my girl, Paris.’ But I said, ‘OK, no problem.’ … It was kind of rough, but once people saw what I was able to do and I got put in front of some eyes, we [O’Neal and his production partner and “best friend,” Brian Bayati]earned our respect. Our mission is to just make you rock out. I want you to jam out. I want you to have fun. I’m not about promoting myself and having people go, ‘Look, who’s that?’”

And now on Gorilla Warfare, under his Diesel stage name, the 51-year-old is sharing his platform with “10 incredible collaborators” — dubstep up-and-comers like Celo, Hairitage, and his “favorite,” Jessica Audiffred, as opposed to the household-name/A-lister types that used to guest on his hip-hop albums back in his Jive Records heyday. “It’s never about me. I’ve been a star since I was 18 years old, and I can’t get no bigger; I can only get smaller by doing dumb stuff. And this is definitely not dumb,” O’Neal asserts. “I just want to make sure the kids have a great time and we come with the music that they like. I know if I would’ve have used my celebrity status, I would’ve been in and out real quickly. But they can tell that we take it seriously and we do a good thing. I think when they call me the ‘Dubstep Dad,’ that’s saying, ‘We know you’re old, but you are a cool dad. So, we accept you, Dad!’ I don’t know if I’m going be doing it when I’m 60, but hopefully I’ll still have the ability to just go out there and make kids jump up and down.”

And as for his emotional/mental state these days, now that he has an exciting new career to focus on, Shaq practices tough love on himself — a technique he learned from his above-mentioned “drill sergeant” of a cool dad. “I say to myself, ‘Stop being a brat. Man up,’” he reveals. “My problems are not as important as somebody that really has problems. So, I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Shut the hell up. Figure it out.’ I don’t go below bottom because I can’t, because I know there’s somebody right now listening to this doesn’t have as much… and they’re really, really suffering. I look at myself and I say, ‘Am I really suffering?’ … So, when you ask, was I down? Yes, I was down. But I can’t allow myself to go below zero. I was down, but it could be worse. … And I never want people to feel sorry for me. I can’t feel sorry for myself, because I know there’s somebody out there right now that just can’t figure it out, just can’t get it done. And I really, really pray for those people.”

Shaquille O'Neal, aka Diesel. (Monstercat Records)

Shaquille O’Neal, aka Diesel. (Monstercat Records)

And as for any fellow middle-aged people out there considering a second (or third or fourth) career act and needing some motivation and inspiration, Shaq advises: “I would just say sit back and really think about what makes you happy, or has made you happy. And if you have a dream that you haven’t fulfilled, go chase it. … I wanted to be Dr. J; on other days, I wanted to be LL Cool J. I want to be the smartest philosopher in the world. Other days, I want be Bill Gates, So, everything that I do is just me focusing on my dream. And then if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you want it to happen, that doesn’t mean give up.”

Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s extended Shaquille “Diesel” O’Neal interview below, in which he also discusses whatever happened to his “vulgar” shelved 2001 album Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriends Vol. 1, his thoughts about the death of his “That’s How I Beat Shaq” video co-star Aaron Carter, his other side hustle as a reserve police officer, and more.

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