Shaq's Next Act: Behind the Turntables
Shaquille O'Neal is happily retired from basketball at 43. But music is his great love anyway, and his DJ career is only beginning.
Photos by Ian Frisch
All photos by Ian Frisch.
The rain came early. A thin mist, hanging in the air like wet smoke. By mid-afternoon, the streets were wet and the cars drove slow. Men wore pants. Women wrapped themselves in coats. It was cold for late September in Atlanta. People on the street talked about it. "Can you believe this?" a woman said to a crossing guard. All he could do was shake his head. There were black umbrellas everywhere and Peachtree Street was crowded. It was Friday. People came and went.
"We're still on Peachtree?" asked Shaquille O'Neal, sitting in the back of a black limo bus. The driver muttered something that he could not hear. O'Neal turned to his cousin sitting across from him.
"Is this your first EDM festival?" O'Neal asked. "I've never seen anything like it in my life."
He glanced out at the road. The bus had only moved a few blocks.
"Where are we at?" he asked.
"We're right near the apartment, Shaquille," his girlfriend, Laticia, replied. "There's 14th Street right there."
They were traveling to Chattahoochee Hills, an 8,000-acre swath of farmland 30 miles southwest of Atlanta. It was the site of TomorrowWorld, a three-day electronic music festival—the American offshoot of the famed European circuit TomorrowLand—held the last weekend of September that every year boasts an attendance of nearly 200,000. Some of the most famous DJs in the world perform at the festival. On that night, Tiësto was headlining on the main stage at midnight.
But, on one of the smaller stages flanking the festival's center, Shaquille O'Neal was scheduled to perform at 8 PM under the moniker DJ Diesel. DJing has been O'Neal's passion since he was a teenager, and was a constant—albeit private—hobby throughout his time in the NBA. Even in the mid 1990s when O'Neal was more well known for rapping and acting, he would still come home and tinker with his turntables—alone, most of the time, or spinning for friends who were visiting. He keeps a video on his phone, from 1998, of him in his home studio in Los Angeles, during his tenure with the Lakers, DJing without a shirt on, spinning around and shaking his ass for the camera.
Now, in retirement, he has spent the last few years going more public with his DJing, playing on occasion in nightclubs, adopting a trap and hip-hop hybrid style, and starting Shaq Fu Radio, a live streaming app. All of this would culminate with his debut at TomorrowWorld. It was his first festival performance, in front of the largest crowd he had yet performed for.
O'Neal was introduced to TomorrowWorld last year by his girlfriend Laticia. O'Neal didn't know what to expect but he was awed by seeing the festival lights and by the sheer magnitude of the event. The congregation of people, the power of the DJ, the opportunity for showmanship and symbiocity with such a large crowd mirrored one of his favorite aspects of playing basketball. He didn't just see a fun event to attend, he saw a performance opportunity, a way to connect with people, a way to have fun in his middle age, and to have a new goal to work toward.
When Joe Silberzweig, marketing manager for TomorrowWorld, walked with O'Neal back to his car after his visit last year, O'Neal said to him, "I think I'm going to DJ this thing next year." Silberzweig thought he was joking. But O'Neal kept in touch. The festival asked to hear a sample mixtape, and were impressed with O'Neal's chops. "I was still very nervous about booking him," Silberzweig admitted. The festival was taking a big risk in putting him on the bill, and O'Neal was taking a big risk in accepting a set at such a prominent time. Despite a solid mixtape, there was no way to know that O'Neal could execute in a live setting.
O'Neal assured Silberzweig not to worry. "Every Game 7 of the Finals, I got a double-double," O'Neal told him. "This right here, this is my Game 7 now."
O'Neal grew up in crime-ridden Newark, New Jersey. His family survived on food stamps. His mother, Lucille, had him when she was 17 and unmarried. He was plump and tall for an infant. She called him Shaun—her little warrior. He grew fast, taking after Lucille, who is six-foot-two, and her grandfather, who was seven feet tall. O'Neal stood just over six feet by the time he was 13.
Lucille met O'Neal's stepfather, Philip Harrison, when O'Neal was only a year old. Lucille knew that her son needed a father figure, and she was in love. They quickly married and, shortly thereafter, Harrison joined the Army in hopes of sustaining an income for his new family. Harrison quickly adopted the hard-edge disciplinary outlook he experienced in the military onto his household, ruling with an iron fist, steadfast in his belief that if he kept his children in line they would stay out of trouble. O'Neal's grandmother Odessa comforted him when Harrison punished him for getting in fights at school, or into trouble with kids in the neighborhood. She would give him milk and cake and tell him, "Stop crying now. It's going to be all right. You're my baby. Don't worry."
Harrison encouraged O'Neal to play sports at an early age, and drilled into him the importance of school. But O'Neal suffered at the hands of other children because of his size. It was easy to come up with nicknames for him. Big Foot. Sasquatch. Freak-quille. Shaquilla Gorilla. O'Neal discovered that his penchant for humor could ease the bullying he experienced in school. He could be accepted if he was funny.
Music, too, was an escape. Growing up in Newark, O'Neal and his cousin Kenny idolized emerging hip-hop musicians of the 1980s—DJ Quik, The Geto Boys, N.W.A. In 1986, after moving to San Antonio, Texas, O'Neal saw Public Enemy live for the first time, sandwiched in a crowd of 5,000 people. He was stunned by the group's DJ, Terminator X. After the concert, he became fixated on being a DJ. He cut his neighbors' grass, walked dogs, scraped together any cash that he could. He saved up $200 and, shortly after his 14th birthday, bought his first set of turntables and a mixer at a local pawn shop. He'd rush home from school at 3 PM to practice before his father got home. He'd close his eyes and scratch records, pretending he was on stage in front of thousands of people. To him, DJing was the ultimate escape, a way to balance life with a controlling father and the pressure to excel at basketball.
During this time, O'Neal's size, something that had caused him so much consternation, became one of his greatest assets. O'Neal—six-foot-ten during his junior year at Cole High School in San Antonio—finally grew into his body. He gained agility, his weight filled in, he learned how to dunk. His dedication to the sport grew as Harrison, his father, became more physical in disciplining his son. If O'Neal seemed to be losing concentration in life, or got in trouble at school, Harrison would hit him. During the summer between his junior and senior year, O'Neal detailed in his memoir Shaq Uncut, Harrison came home from work one day and punched O'Neal in the face. "It's time for you to get serious," Harrison said, comparing his son to Jon Koncak, who was just drafted to the Atlanta Hawks for $15 million. "See how much money you could make it you'd just stay out of trouble?"
O'Neal continued to focus on basketball, playing in an AAU league over the summer, preparing for his last year of high school. By his senior year, O'Neal was one of the top-ranked high school athletes in the country. He was the most popular kid at his school, too, and used music to heighten his social appeal. He remixed Cole High's official song on his turntables and rapped over it with his teammates. He would DJ for local parties. And, as the season came to a close, he chose to attend Louisiana State University, led by head coach Dale Brown.
Brown had met O'Neal some years earlier, at a youth summer camp, and O'Neal felt loyal to the man who saw his potential at an early age. But another reason O'Neal wanted to go to LSU was the distance. He needed to get away from his father. By the time he was seventeen, with big opportunities on the horizon, he thought to himself, I'm a man. I need to strike out on my own.
Shaquille O'Neal is still a large man. He moves slower these days, walking with a timid gait, favoring his left hip. He'll have to get a full replacement sometime in the future, but, for now, he is putting it off. Slivers of grey thread the scruff on his chin and cheeks. His hands are soft and gentle, nails white and trim, with long fingers that find their way onto the wrists and shoulders of those around him. Deep brown eyes sit above his boyish smile, which he flashes often, tugging his lips slightly to the right. He is 43 years old.
Nine members of O'Neal's family and inner circle traveled in the bus to see him perform: His girlfriend Laticia, a head of bouncy curls, blue eyes flecked with russet; his aforementioned cousin, Kenny, who is three years younger than O'Neal and grew up with him in Newark; O'Neal's oldest son Myles, a boisterous freshman at Santa Barbara College who wore his father's Lakers jersey and brought along his friend Asher from California; his middle son Shareef, a soft-spoken 6-foot 8-inch high school sophomore who is also a star basketball player; his 14-year-old nephew, also Myles, Kenny's son; his personal chef Alex; his traveling bodyguard, also Alex, who, ironically, is nearly a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than O'Neal; his agent and manager Rishi; and D'Ana, Laticia's younger sister.
As the bus pulled off the highway, O'Neal addressed the kids. They had plans to see other acts after his set. "I'll tell y'all now: stay together. Wherever you all go, let Alex and Alex know where you are at. When we call or text y'all, you better respond quick, you hear? Don't ever split up. You came as four, you stay as four. Got it?"
"Alright, yeah, well, you tell these guys here not to split up," O'Neal's son Myles rebutted, referencing his younger brother and cousin.
"Oh, no. You too," O'Neal said. "You and Asher gonna be chasing chicks and shit." Everyone laughed.
The bus drove on. The boys thumbed through their phones. Kenny played a few songs on the stereo. It was dark now, the bus moving under the cover of trees lining the road off the highway. Signs started popping up for the festival entrance. Police officers stood at intersections, directing traffic. As the bus pulled up, O'Neal told the driver to stop and open the door. He got out to greet the police officers.
"After all these years, he still can't sit still," Kenny said as O'Neal stepped off. Laticia nodded in agreement. "We call him The Robot. He doesn't stop." After shaking hands and giving his thanks, O'Neal boarded the bus and it rolled off. The son of a military stepfather, O'Neal has grown to appreciate and admire men of the law. In 2005, he even became a certified Miami Beach reserve police officer. Whenever he has the opportunity, he stops and extends his gratitude.
The road turned to dirt as the bus went deeper into the woods. The bus rumbled down the dark path, careening through patches of mud, pushing through potholes and puddles. At the entrance gate to the festival, an attendant motioned for the driver to roll down his window.
"Are you dropping off or are you picking up?"
Kenny stepped down next to the driver and spoke. "We are artists."
"I need to see your passes."
O'Neal rose from his seat, stepped down next to Kenny, and thrusted his head towards the window.
"What do you need to see, baby?" he said, smiling.
O'Neal sat back down. "This is my pass," he said, pointing to his face. Alex, the chef, laughed from the back of the bus.
The road swung to the right, and the festival came into view. Neon lights—pink, blue, purple, green—shot into the sky like jagged streaks of lightning. Tents dotted the patch of grass between two clusters of trees—troves of oak knitted with pine—and, in the far distance, the main stage pulsed in front of a sea of 100,000 people—a glowing bubble of glitter, feathers, spandex and lace.
"Last year, as soon as we came around that curve right there," O'Neal said, pointing, prompting Kenny to turn his head, "I was like, 'What the fuck is this...' We came around that curve and...whoo...that shit was crazy."
Within a year of attending LSU, O'Neal's sights were already on the NBA. During the 1990-1991 season, he was the first player to lead the SEC in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, and blocks. He was also named All-American and National Player of the Year. During his off-time, O'Neal could be found scratching on his turntables in his dorm room, or cruising around Baton Rouge in a beat-up Ford Bronco, blasting hip-hop, pretending to talk on a fake cell phone, waving at friends on the street. After his junior year, O'Neal announced that he was entering the NBA draft. He was ready to go pro.
When the Orlando Magic chose O'Neal as the first pick in the 1992 NBA draft, the first thing he did was bend over and kiss his mother. With nearly $100 million in contracts and endorsements, O'Neal bought a house outside of Orlando, as well as a house for his grandmother Odessa, and another for his parents. He took his mother out shopping and stopped at an audio shop, where O'Neal bought a top-of-the-line turntable setup. When they went to pay, Lucille told the cashier to put her son's equipment on layaway. O'Neal bent down, kissed her and said, "Mom, I promise. Those days are over."
After being named Rookie of the Year, O'Neal was asked to be a guest on the Arsenio Hall Show. Instead of merely being interviewed, O'Neal asked to rap on the show alongside Fu Schnickens, one of his favorite hip-hop collectives. They prepared at O'Neal's home and, in front of a live audience, performed a few songs. O'Neal wore a red outfit laced in glitter. Word spread quickly of the appearance and Jive Records offered O'Neal a record deal the following day. Over the next few years, O'Neal put out a handful of records, with cameos from some of his favorite rappers, including Jay-Z, Nas, and Mobb Deep. He even built a friendship with the Notorious B.I.G. and had him out to his home in Orlando where they rode jetskis behind his home on Lake Butler. During a ride, Biggie fell off and nearly drowned. O'Neal had to rescue him out of the lake.
Despite his popularity, he failed to clinch a title with the Magic. O'Neal largely blamed himself. Sensitive and self-critical from years under Harrison's watch, there were many nights where O'Neal would jump in his car and drive through the night to Miami from Orlando, listening to music, trying to relieve stress. He would park at the ocean and stare at the water. Just before sunrise, he would drive back.
In 1996, O'Neal's last year with the Magic, his grandmother Odessa passed away. O'Neal was devastated. Whenever he had trouble on the court, he would go to his happy place, sitting on her lap, having milk and cake. He was so distraught that he left the funeral early, punching the church door on his way out, he detailed in his memoir. Although the team made it to the playoffs that year, they were swept by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
After failing to win a championship with the Magic, and signing with the Lakers as a free agent, O'Neal started feeling the pressure of the blame-game mentality of the NBA. He was one of the best center in the game, so why hadn't he led a team to a title? After losing in the Western Conference Finals during his first season with the Lakers, many of his critics said his showmanship off the court, starring in movies and putting out rap albums, were more important than winning in the sport that made him a star in the first place. His movies were largely unsuccessful monetarily (although his popularity soared, especially with children), and, in many respects, the public viewed him as a caricature of himself. To many people, he had allowed fame to skew his priorities as an athlete. But to him, he was just following his personal passions—activities, like music, that were always there for him, that gave him comfort and a sense of self worth, an escape from the pressures of his everyday life.
After two seasons, the Lakers brought on Phil Jackson as head coach. The first thing he did was take O'Neal aside. He laid it on the line for him: no more movies, no more rap albums, no more partying and goofing around. O'Neal complied. He was ready to put his hobbies on hold for basketball.
He went on to win three championships in LA and a fourth in Miami before retiring in 2011.
O'Neal has never shied away from marketing—whether the product is himself, or something else. He has his fingers in many prominent companies, including Google, where he invested over $1 million in the 1990s; Arizona Iced Tea, where he has his own beverage line; Zales, Buick, Icy Hot, and Gold Bond, for which he stars in commercials; Muscle Milk and Vitamin Water; a series of car washes; and a stake in Pure and Chateau, nightclubs in Las Vegas. O'Neal leveraged his interest in Chateau to launch his DJing career.
But to O'Neal, these investments aren't just about the perks. They are his way of planning for 10 years down the road. He calls the people around him his pyramid—immediate family, extended family—where he is the foundation. His schedule is largely filled with business appointments that aim to expand and solidify his brand not only as a means to preserve his name as something people can relate to, but also for the financial stability of his family. At this point in his life, he says they are his number one priority.
For a man who spent his whole life proving himself—to his father, to his teammates, to coaches and the public—validation for O'Neal, now, is largely internal. "Basketball is something that you do. It's not who you are," he said in a recent interview. And now that O'Neal has moved on from the sport, he can start formulating who he is rather than what he did—to use his time away from basketball to find himself in a more profound way.
There's a strange balancing act when it comes to fame, especially for athletes. Many people see you as one thing: someone who is supposed to win. And for those who want to accomplish other goals, the criticism is often laced with confusion. Why would a person so gifted at sports want to concentrate on anything else? For many professional athletes, reputations and legacies are broken down to the singularity of win or lose. If you aren't winning, why should we care? If your personal objectives don't fall in line with what we expect of you, where is the value? But for O'Neal, who has been under a microscope his entire career, middle age has become a time to overcome the inherent criticism of the public, to continue to do things that make him happy, and to find purpose in life after sports. He says that being respected by his children—as a father, as a man—is better than a championship ring, a big house, or a truckload of money.
So perhaps it's not surprising that the big house he lives in is mostly quiet. Shaq still lives in the same home he bought when he was drafted: a 64,000 square-foot estate in Windermere, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. The home sits on the edge of Lake Butler and is split into three wings. Two garages flank the center of the home. The western is filled with cars. The eastern garage is for recreation, with vintage arcade games, a custom chopper, and a handful of ATVs. It also has a small room in it painted maroon with a white couch. This is O'Neal's music studio.
The central wing of his home is his personal space. Nights are long and quiet for O'Neal. He doesn't get to bed until early morning. For dinner, he usually eats pasta with chicken or fish, and, around midnight, he usually heads to his studio. He retreats here often—and alone—to practice and get away for a little while. It's his personal release. He stays in the studio until late in the night, experimenting with new tracks and mixing sequences, playing until well past 3 AM—tucked away within the smallest room in the house. From there, he goes to his bedroom, on the second floor. He turns on the television.
Although he has left the NBA behind, stating publicly that he wouldn't play again even if he could, O'Neal still lays in bed until early morning watching old games. He often ends up watching videos of the Bulls and the Blazers, highlights of Julius Erving, and clips from the 80s and early-90s, an era he says was when true basketball was played, where the real players shone. It's not necessarily that he is passing time because he can't sleep, but perhaps because he misses the game, a feeling that comes to him only in the quiet of the night when no one is monitoring him. It's a time where he can give a little bit of himself away—playing music just for himself, reflecting on what basketball once meant to him. He finds comfort in the night—and years after leaving the NBA, has rediscovered a passion that predates his love of basketball.
When he first saw the lights of Tomorrowland in the hills outside Atlanta, he hoped it might offer the same rewards as basketball: adrenaline, showmanship, performance, challenge, respect.
By 8 PM, the rain stopped. A 15-passenger van transported O'Neal and his family from the edge of the festival grounds, where his bus was parked, to the outskirt of the stage. It was too muddy for the van to continue. The group off-loaded and piled into three golf carts. O'Neal rode in the front of one, Laticia and her sister in the back seat. His sons and the rest of the crew split between the other two. When they arrived at the rear of the stage, he was swarmed by spectators, other artists, and members of the media. Despite his lack of clout in the EDM world, everyone wanted a piece of O'Neal.
When O'Neal announced his performance at TomorrowWorld, reactions on social media were mixed. Some users thought it was a joke, a ploy for publicity not only for the festival but also for O'Neal. Many were skeptical that his performance was just another shallow attempt to stay relevant—a way to not be just another retired athlete, forgotten and mused over as someone who once was.
One user on Twitter wrote, "u think sfx"—the company that puts on the festival—"is going under bc they're letting shaq dj tomorrow or other way around?" Another wrote, "Shaq is djing tomorrow world.. this is getting ridiculous now." O'Neal was not concerned about the criticism. "You have to understand people's emotions," he said. He knew that many people were unaware he had been DJing for nearly 30 years, and, because of that, the public may be cynical toward his involvement. Moreover, by now, he was used to it. Being doubted was nothing new.
Despite the skepticism, spectators packed in front of the stage, holding hand-made signs, waiting for O'Neal to perform: three of signs pictured him as a genie in Kazaam, one showed him from his Magic days with pasted-on googly eyes, and another was a warped version of his Gold Bond commercial with the slogan, "When the Drugs Hit You." Screams of light reflected off sweat-drenched bodies in the crowd. Girls had neon eels for hair, luminescent furry boots, lace short-shorts, horns and goggles, with glittered cheeks and bracelets stacked from wrist to elbow. It was a sea of twisted faces, bug-eyed and bright. As the act preceding O'Neal came to a close, those holding customized signs started thrusting them into the air.
O'Neal stood behind a curtain at the rear of the stage. His headphones clasped above his ears. His sons had made their way to the front, to the left of the DJ booth, and waited for their father to emerge. O'Neal had taken off his sweatshirt, revealing his Lakers jersey, matching that of his son Myles'. Underneath, a black shirt tucked into loose-fitting blue jeans. He wore neoprene and rubber rain boots, chunky and thick. They were ugly. He could have easily passed for someone's father—a very large dad.
A man grabbed the microphone.
"Are you ready for Shaq?!" he screamed into the mic. The crowd roared. They chanted. "Diesel! Diesel! Diesel!" Thousands of people screaming. O'Neal emerged from the rear of the stage and walked up to the turntables. He plugged in his headphones. His long fingers pushed buttons. He grabbed the microphone.
"Let's go TomorrowWorld!" he yelled, starting the music, dropping into a fiery junk drawer of trap mixes—whomping and bombastic. He wove between many familiar tracks, like "Hard in Da Paint" by Waka Flocka Flame, but also underground artists that Myles had recommended: Flosstradamus, Brillz, Slander, and Crizzly. He even brought out English performer Kyroman to play their collaborative song, "My Squad's Lit." O'Neal careened through the tracks, dabbling in some dubstep, his heavy frame shaking and bobbing behind the booth, steam rising off his shoulders and head, arms raised in the air. He came alive, looking younger and more mobile than he's been in years.
He took off his Lakers jersey and threw it into the crowd. Fans clamored and fought over the momento. Kenny stood behind him, dancing in place, shaking his head with the beat. He filmed his cousin on his cell phone. Towards the end of the set, Myles and Shareef joined their father at the turntables. They danced and smiled. Fog spewed from the stage. Confetti shot from cannons. They were here and the crowd was cheering and everyone was together.
Laticia kissed O'Neal's cheek as he came off the rear of the stage. The boys trailed behind, talking amongst themselves. O'Neal wiped his face with a towel and made his way through the small crowd to a tent behind the stage to take photographs with fans and crew members. As soon as his performance ended, social media flooded with praise—astonished that O'Neal had pulled it off. "Yo @SHAQ is kinda crushing it right now at TomorrowWorld," one spectator wrote. By the next morning, more had come in: "I heard SHAQ killed TomorrowWorld," "watching videos of @SHAQ playing dubstep at @TomorrowWorld is giving me so much hope for the universe," "I saw @SHAQ DJ @TomorrowWorld and it was the most lit set of the entire festival. he is a god and was bigger than the stage." Nick Catchdubs, popular Brooklyn-based DJ and co-owner of Fool's Gold Records, tweeted, "I heard Shaq killed it at Tomorrowworld???? Pls confirm." One user responded: "@catchdini when he dropped shaq diesel the crowd absolutely lost it."
After the photograph session, O'Neal and his family got back on the golf carts to get something to eat at the Artist Mansion, a converted horse stable atop a hill overlooking the festival. They transferred to the van at the end of the dirt road. O'Neal sat in the front seat. He was quiet. He was tired.
"That was so amazing, Dad," Myles said from the rear of the van, smiling.
"You were incredible, baby," Laticia added.
"The crowd was crazy!" Kenny told him.
They continued to drive. When they got to the mansion, they ate shrimp and drank Sprite. O'Neal sat down for a few interviews, with MTV and a documentary crew covering all spots of the festival's circuit. Fireworks went off in the distance.
"I was introduced to TomorrowWorld by accident," he told the camera crew. "I've been to a lot of events, but I've never seen anything like this before, never in my life. All I saw was people having a good time. I contacted the festival and asked them, please, just let me have an hour. You don't have to pay me.* I just want to have fun. When I came out here, I was 12 years old again. The last great concert I went to was in 1986: Public Enemy in San Antonio, Texas. When I came here last year, I knew had to go back."
Between interviews, the boys headed back into the festival. O'Neal told them to meet at the main stage, in the VIP area, at midnight for Tiësto, and reminded them to stick together. O'Neal ate some more food before the staff shut down the buffet for the night. He sat with Laticia and Kenny. Alex and Alex stood nearby. After they finished, a van brought them to the main stage. A table on the VIP upper deck, overlooking the crowd, was reserved for them.
O'Neal mingled with fans, posed for pictures, and listened to the music. The main stage boomed in front of the massive crowd, live waterfalls gushing next to the DJ booth, fire blasting from tubes into the air. Spectators hoisted their homeland's flags: South Korea, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Belgium. Lights funneled from the stage. It was loud. The boys came back and stood next to their father. O'Neal had his arms around Laticia. They watched the crowd together. He bent over, mouth next to her ear, and said:"Do you know what this reminds me of? All this energy?" He glanced up at the crowd. They roared with excitement. "Winning an NBA Championship."
*Although O'Neal initially offered to perform at TomorrowWorld for free, his management team subsequently negotiated an undisclosed fee for the appearance.