Saturday, May 22, 2021

Def Jef Tells The Story Of Shaq's Early Rap Career

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. It opened 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. 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 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 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," he said. "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 O'Neal showed tremendous 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 how a show they did in Minneapolis at Prince's club, First Avenue, 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.”

MC Supernatural corroborated Fortson's story.. Known for his tremendous freestyle abilities, Supernatural remains one of the most highly regarded MCs in the game. When reached via telephone, just the mention of Shaq's name triggered lucid 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 by 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 nascent stage of his rap career, well before finances complicated the situation. The experience had a purity that couldn't be replicated 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.” 

* - Originally published for The Sports Post on September 9, 2016.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Greg Larson 'Clubbie" Author Interview

Greg Larson wanted to live the big league dream, but after batting .091 during his senior season, he knew his only way he was getting into a pro clubhouse was if he worked there. Fresh out of college, Larson searched for any opportunity to get his foot in the door. When a spot opened up at baseball's lowest rung with the Baltimore Orioles short season Class-A Aberdeen Ironbirds, Larson jumped at the opportunity. 

The ensuing two years completely flipped his perception of a professional baseball player's life. Minor league life was filled with squalor and despair, with salaries that hugged the poverty line. He decided to chronicle his wild two year ride with Aberdeen in his new book, Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir.

Larson joined the Baseball Happenings Podcast for a candid talk about the ups and downs he experienced while working in the clubhouse and how it forced him to grow up quickly.

Click here to listen to the Greg Larson interview or stream below.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Willie Mays Turns 90: A Legend Throughout The Years

Willie Mays celebrates his 90th birthday at Oracle Park in San Francisco.

Hall of Fame legend Willie Mays turned 90 on May 6, 2021, and the entire baseball community celebrated the milestone with a variety of tributes including a grand celebration at Oracle Park.

As part of the festivities, the Giants announced the creation of the Willie Mays Scholars program, which will offer college prep and support to Black high schoolers in San Francisco. The initial class this fall will include five students who will receive $70,000 in support, including up to $20,000 in scholarships.

“I have always made kids my priority by helping them in any way I could throughout my playing career and life,” Mays said in a statement. “To have the Giants Community Fund and the Giants ownership group create this program in my name and to provide a path to college for Black children in our community means the world to me. I can’t wait to meet the first class of Willie Mays Scholars to offer my encouragement and support.”

Mays was a World Series hero for the New York Giants in 1954, his infamous catch of Vic Wertz's smash during Game 1 paved the way for the Giants to sweep the Indians. While the World Series odds seemed a longshot at +6000 for the Giants to start the 2021 season, the club's first place standing during Mays' celebration could be the inspiration needed to drive towards another championship appearance.

While honors have poured in across the landscape offering Mays his flowers, we take a look back at our coverage of Mays throughout his career, often through the words of his teammates.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Set Break And Review

Topps and Athletes Unlimited joined forces in 2021 to produce the first volleyball card set in the company's history. The 52-card set highlights all of Athletes Unlimited's volleyball players including Olympians Jordan Larson, Sheilla Castro and Bethania de la Cruz. Topps produced the set as part of its on-demand series and was made available to fans and collectors during the five-week season. The set finished with a print run of 3,048 copies, making it a limited-edition collectible for years to come. 

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Base Set and Checklist

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Cards
The base set features 47 athletes and five additional cards dedicated to the league and the upcoming Athletes Unlimited softball season. Click here for the set's checklist. 
The cards are on glossy stock with the backs dedicated to their personal and professional bios, as well as their college accolades. An interesting aspect of the card design is the interlocking feature between cards when placed side-by-side. 
Speaking with Cassidy Lichtman for Forbes right before the season started, she said these Topps card fulfilled an unexpected dream. 
“It’s a dream that I didn't know I was supposed to have,” Lichtman said. “Growing up in volleyball, you just don't expect to get that same kind of level of visibility and recognition because you never had it. I didn't even think I should be thinking about it, but now that it's an actual possibility and an actual thing happening, what an amazing thing! I grew up in a sports family; we used to buy baseball cards, and my brother collected them. To know that Topps, which is the name in baseball cards, is giving us our own set and giving us space within the platform that they have, is just kind of surreal.”

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Autographs and Parallels

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Parallels and Autographs

With each athlete signing 50 cards for Topps, more than 75% of the sets will contain an autograph. The autographs are of the sticker variety, as the short season necessitated a quick turnaround for the set. 
In addition to the autographs, each card has four parallels as part of the rainbow, with the elusive Gold 1/1 being the chase cards here. The three other parallels are: Purple / 50, Blue /25 and Orange /5. 

The set provided for this review featured a Sherridan Atkinson Purple parallel /50 and a signed Nia Grant card. 

2021 Topps Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Set / Box Break Video

Collectors who are finding out about the set after its release will have to hit the secondary market on sites like eBay to pick up a copy. If you want to get a preview of the entire set, watch the box break below as we went through each card in the debut issue. 

Topps' partnership with Athletes Unlimited Volleyball is a major step towards tapping into a huge market for one of the most popular sports in the United States, as girls' volleyball is the second most widely participated high school sport in the country. As interest in the league grows, watch for more young fans turn into collectors of their favorite athletes from the league.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Baseball Happenings Podcast | Cody Bellinger 1 on 1 Interview

Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and 2019 National League MVP joined the Baseball Happenings Podcast to discuss his new partnership with Flonase and why the move was in alignment with his personal branding, as he has suffered from allergies his entire career. 

He also explained what it was like to play through the pandemic, including winning the 2020 World Series and what the Dodgers are looking forward to in defending the title in 2021. 

Click here to listen to the Cody Bellinger interview and subscribe to the podcast.