As New Yorker Ben Sisto undertook a multi-year quest to find out exactly who, who wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out” — the hit tune from 2000 that some call one of the most annoying songs of all time — his journey led him to a perhaps improbable time and place.
The Westside of Jacksonville, 1992.
And two teenage rappers, Joe Gonzalez and Brett Hammock, sitting inside Brett’s parents’ Chevy Astro minivan in Riverside.
As usual, they’d taken out the back seat, without telling the parents — the better to hold the massive sub-woofers that blasted the Miami bass music they loved.
The speakers could shake the whole Astro, but the sound quality was terrible, and the music was blaring, says Hammock. So they misunderstood the lyrics (“who’s rocking this dog house”) of a sampled song inside another song. And Joe, for some reason, started singing “who let the dogs out,” followed by five “woofs.”
Brett joined in.
Gonzalez, 27 years later, says he knew something right away, there in the Astro: “When (Brett) started doing it, waving his arms around, singing it, I thought: That’s a really good hook.”
Gonzalez and Hammock never made a penny on that hit.
But their experience did earn them a significant chunk of time in a droll new documentary, written by Sisto, that explores, with remarkable tenacity, the mysterious origins of the song.
Sisto says he doesn’t even like the Baha Men song. But years ago he was reading the Wikipedia page for it and noticed an incomplete citation. He had time on his hands, so he decided he’d fix it. That spurred a compulsion, which he tries to explain in the movie, to figure out who wrote the song, which has been the subject of several legal battles.
It was, and they quickly wrote and recorded a song around that hook. Its title? “Who Let the Dogs Out” — made years before a song with the same title (and chorus) became a worldwide hit for the Baha Men.
Not to give too much about the movie away, but the answer is not exactly clear. Sisto, all these years later, embraces the ambiguity.
“It’s an unknowable question, and I know that now,” he says. “I’m content with that.”
The documentary explores the mysteries in the origin story, and settles for a while on Gonzalez and Hammock, in Jacksonville in 1992.
(Jacksonville, by the way, gets another nod in the movie as it shows presidential candidate Mitt Romney, back in 2008, jokingly chanting the chorus while at a Martin Luther King Day parade in the city.)
“Who Let the Dogs Out” visits Gonzalez and Hammock at a Little Caesar’s on 103rd Street, where they both once worked, and where they wrote lyrics on bread-stick bags. It goes to Mamado’s studio, where she says she knew these kids had some talent. And it goes to San Marco Square, where they once took publicity photos trying to look tough, to no avail.
Hammock, now 45 and living in Denver, laughs when asked about the photos. “Those were two tough dudes, man,” he says, “Nah. Those were two of the biggest wusses you ever met. It was ridiculous.”
The film includes modern footage of Gonzalez and Hammock as they tell their story, which is confirmed by two floppy disks labeled “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT,” for which Gonzalez even has a Kmart receipt from 1992.
Sisto took them to experts, who helped him replay the disks and confirm that they were from that year.
The verses in the Jacksonville version of the song are nothing like the Caribbean-flavored sound of the Baha Men hit. But the earworm chorus? Pretty much the same.
And as Sisto notes wryly in the movie: “The song itself is almost 50 percent ‘who let the dogs out.’ ”
Their link to the song is crucial to the movie. “I just love their whole story,” Sisto says. “It’s just perfect American teens, and they want to be in this cool band.”
The two rappers met at the Westside Skills Center, where they studied commercial art. Brett was the rapper, and Joe knew about production and beats.
They gravitated toward the Miami bass sound popular at the time, did some DJing, got some recording time and eventually named themselves Miami Boom Productions.
Gonzalez, now 46 and living in Riverside, laughs. “In hindsight, that’s crazy, right? Not even being in Miami.”
Hammock recalls how they learned, some seven years after recording their “Who Let the Dogs Out,” that a group called the Baha Men had a hit with the same title and chorus.
A friend called him up. “Hey, I heard your song on the radio,” he said.
Hammock didn’t really believe him, until he heard it himself on the radio while in a parking lot of a Blockbuster store on Normandy Boulevard.
“I’m sitting there listening to it and thought, ‘this is trash.’ Then I heard the chorus and I thought, ‘they stole our chorus!’ ” he says. “It’s part of our song, but it’s not our song. It was surreal listening to this weird Rastafarian kind of reggae, with our hook.”
Gonzalez says he felt the song had been stolen from him, and still feels that way. He says he can’t say anything about it, but hints at something happening on that front, all these years later.
“This movie changes everything. We’re bracing.”
Hammock, meanwhile, says he’s let all those emotions go. It’s tricky, he says: You tell people you wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out” and they look at you kind of weird.
“If it was up to me I’d probably never think about the song, but dumb things like this are kind of fun,” he says. “With Ben’s movie, it let’s people know that hey, these two guys aren’t totally full of crap.”