When it comes to the great unanswered questions of history, one tops the list: “Who let the dogs out?” Music-lovers of a certain age will remember the ubiquitous—and onomatopoeic—1990s hip-hop track performed by the Baha Men. Artist and curator Ben Sisto dedicated an exhaustively researched, immersive video art project to the infamous earworm. It premiered at SXSW in Austin earlier this year. Now a related documentary, Who Let the Dogs Out, comes to Jacksonville’s Sun-Ray Cinema.
It’s not a random screening, either. Sisto’s seven-year quest to learn everything about the hit song eventually brought him to Duval County. You see, while the iconic Baha Men version of “Who Let the Dogs Out” charted worldwide in 2000, it turns out the Bahamian trio weren’t the first to ... let the dogs out. According to Sisto’s documentary, two Jacksonville teens may have been the originators of the infectious hook, stemming from a 1992 demo.
Back then, “B-Nastie” (Brett Hammock) and “Miami J” (Joe Gonzales) of Duval-based Miami Boom Productions were aspiring teenage musicians hoping to make their mark with a Miami-bass style track. While attending Edward H. White High School, they used early recording gear to put together a rhythmic beat with chanted lyrics.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to mentioned a ‘Miami sound’ or a reference to early bass music,” Sisto told Folio Weekly. “We had a feeling that a Jacksonville trip would be part of the documentary, but didn’t expect to film at the very gazebo [where] Miami Boom Productions shot their early ‘90s promo photos.”
While delving into the Duval duo’s relation to the hit single, Sisto’s shot various scenes in San Marco, including bars and restaurants on San Marco Boulevard, Balis Park and San Marco Square. Other sites include the J’Ville Crab Shack and ONYX Sports Bar and Lounge.
“[San Marco] felt really walkable, and the people were nice. It was too hot for my New England ass, but that’s Florida, right?” Sisto joked. “When we got to the gazebo for filming I just couldn’t believe it was right there, essentially unchanged more than 25 years later.”
As the story goes, on Nov. 30, 1992, Mamado, a Jacksonville music producer and alumnus of Edward Waters College, recorded Hammock and Gonzales’ demo. In addition to a cassette, there also exists one of Gonzales’ old lyrics sheets, written on a Little Caesars bag, and a floppy disk and dated receipt from a local K-Mart purchase. This type of hard evidence is important in copyright cases, according to Sisto.
“My first impression of [Gonzales] was that he’s this guy with a great story to tell, but needs some help editing it down,” Sisto said. “I was a bit nervous that on camera, [Hammock] might not speak much and Joe might overshare but really, they were amazing together. They fell right into being old friends, a true duo. They are humble, honest and charming.”
Sisto ended up taking the aged floppy discs to KyroFlux, a company of experts in magnetic media storage. A technician was able to restore the data on the disks, load the sequences and play back the early track’s original chants and sounds. The hook is clearly similar to that of the Baha Men song.
“I know where we believe [the song] came from,” Hammock says in the film. “We should own that song.”
Yet, before Sisto could be completely convinced that the Jacksonville natives deserved the sole rights to “Who Let the Dogs Out,” an even earlier claim emerged. John Michael Davis, an alum of Dowagiac Union High in Michigan, came forward with a video of his football team using the chant back in 1990. Earlier footage of other sports teams using similar chants has surfaced.
“[Hammock and Gonzales] were totally unaware of prior usage of the phrase that I was able to discover,” Sisto affirmed.
So who let the dogs out? In the end, Sisto chased his quest for an answer to the burning question across the world, from the Bahamas to London to Seattle, Jacksonville and Michigan. Despite spending years investigating, and traveling thousands of miles, the curator concludes that there is no conclusive answer to his burning question. Attorney Lita Rosario puts it best in the film when she says, “Songs are usually collaborations.”
Collaboration or not, “Who Let the Dogs Out” has gone down in history as one of the most well-known dance hits to ever have potential Jacksonville roots. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.