Tuesday, November 16, 2010

#31. ISAIAH TAYLOR (OF THE BAHA MEN) - “A one-hit wonder.”

Two of the Baha Men’s cell phone numbers are on the group’s website.

This is the incredible sentence that flits through my brain as I stare at my computer screen Friday morning. I blink. I blink again. The numbers are still there.

"#31. A one-hit wonder" has been taunting me from THE LIST since the project began. ‘Why did I have to put that on there?’ I kept thinking. How the hell am I going to find one willing to a) admit their one-hit wonder status and b) talk to me for a stupid Tumblr blog? (I don’t have very high self-esteem.)

I spent Friday morning surfing Google and Wikipedia typing in any one-hit wonder song I could think of. It didn’t take long for me to try the Baha Men and their once-and-future ubiquitous summer hit “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Hardly a joke was made or sports team introduced without the energetic bellowing of this seemingly random question. Who were these dogs and why were we so concerned with them being out? It was madness.

The man behind this pandemonium, Isaiah Taylor, never became a household name. He’s who picks up the phone when I cold-call the number on the website Friday afternoon. He’s the band’s leader and founder and one of the only consistent members in a revolving cast of seven to nine musicians.

Isaiah is in the Bahamas (naturally) for the weekend and tells me he’d be happy to talk to me on Monday. We have the same area code (Ft. Lauderdale, where he owns a house and where my parents live) and before we hang up, he asks where exactly I’m from. We make plans to do the interview over the phone and meet up when I’m down for Thanksgiving to fulfill the project’s requirements. It strikes me then how insane it is that a) Isaiah’s number is on the Baha Men’s website (Have I mentioned this yet?!) b) that he picked up c) that he didn’t immediately hang up when I said I wanted to interview him for a personal blog about one-hit wonders and d) that he agreed to participate.

When we finally do get an hour to talk on the phone, I don’t want to dive directly into questions about his group’s one hit, even though that’s all I’m dying to talk about. So at first, I ask about his childhood in the Bahamas.

Isaiah, now in his 50s, says he naturally grew up with an interest in music on an tiny island full of musicians. However, he said he never had the ambition to get into the industry until he was in his twenties, when he started managing local bands.

"It wasn’t that difficult. The music scene is not the way it used to be. It’s the same thing with the US. The ’70s were the best time for music," he says. "It has changed dramatically. A lot of night clubs had a lot of live bands. It’s still there but not the way it used to be."

Isaiah has a thick Bahamian accent and our cell phone connection is terrible. I have to ask him to repeat himself several times and so it’s even more awkward when I finally spit out my first question about “Who Let the Dogs Out?” — did he know after they recorded it in 2000 that it would be such a hit? He says he didn’t have any inkling but that songwriter and producer Desmond Child, whose publishing company owned the song, was adamant that it would be the biggest song of the summer.

"I didn’t know, no," he says, and he doesn’t immediately hang up so I’m relieved. "Desmond predicted that. He said, ‘It’s going to be massive’ but I thought maybe it’d be a big hit for the summer back then but never like this."

Just how popular and pervasive was the song? Well, Googling “Who Let the Dogs Out?” still yields over 31 million hits. The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ gets about 4 million.

And for a while, it seemed like “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was this nation’s anthem.

"How do you feel when you hear the song now?" I ask.

"Well, it makes you feel good," he says simply. "I guess the novelty has probably worn off but it’s no big deal. It might be for some of the other guys. If you’re driving in your car anywhere in the US and you hear it? It makes you feel good."

I haven’t listened in probably eight years when I type it into GrooveShark in preparation for our interview. Though “Who Let the Dogs Out?” isn’t exactly The Rolling Stones, I can’t help the smile that breaks out on my face as soon as the familiar intro plays. I’m surprised by my own reaction, how easily the nostalgia and innocence of the simple lyrics and upbeat percussion get me.

"Who Let the Dogs Out?" was recorded ten years ago by an unknown group of nine men from the Bahamas calling themselves "The Baha Men," and released as a single. The repetitive chorus consists entirely of the screamed question, "WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?" followed by a chanted "WHO WHO WHO?" It was catchy. Beyond catchy. It was a never-ending cultural phenomenon.

I make the mistake of asking what it was like to become famous overnight without realizing that it only seems that way to civilians. Truthfully, the Baha Men, who started out with six members and the name “High Voltage” before coming to the US, had been signed to A&R rep Steve Greenberg’s record company since 1992. They were a group of good friends who made music together in the Bahamian scene.

"The Bahamas is very small," he says, when I ask how they all met. "Nassau’s very small. Meeting is no big deal."

Greenberg, Isaiah says, ran an independent record label called S-Curve that managed among other acts, Joss Stone and Fountains of Wayne. A representative named Kendall Stubbs traveled to New Jersey and shopped the Baha Men around, eventually getting Greenberg’s attention. He signed them soon after. However, their singles were mediocre like 1992’s “Back to the Island.” (Isaiah says he probably likes that song better than “Who Let the Dogs Out?” objectively speaking but “it was never as big.”)

The type of music the group created then was called “junkanoo” after a Bahamian street festival every December and January that includes art and music (mostly drums and other percussion instruments). They even named one of their albums after the parade, however Isaiah readily admits that once radio airplay became the goal, the Baha Men changed their sound to be more “poppy.”

"We just did something different that radio was ready for at that time," he stresses. "We just took the street instruments and combined them with the stage instruments. It all has the junkanoo elements in it but if you want to get airplay on the radio, you have to go with the radio format."

Seven of the original members still tour with the Baha Men today and Isaiah says they’re planning on putting out an album and touring this year. (The group’s Facebook page proclaims “BahaMen Is Back!” although they only have about 300 fans there.) They’ve done VH1’s ‘I Love the New Millennium’ discussing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and just participated in a Rolling Stone magazine celebration of the song’s 10-year anniversary that will be published next month. He can’t pick a favorite “Who Let the Dogs Out?” joke but he believes the media’s given the group a fair shake over all.

"You have to accept it for what it is and not what you want it to be," he says.

Growing bolder, I remark that some people found the fact that you couldn’t get away from the song when it was popular incredibly annoying. I ask if Isaiah ever got fed up by the song’s immortality.

"Yeah, of course. I understand how hearing it all the time could be like, ‘If I have to hear it one more time…,’ sure," he says. "But for me, when I’m performing it, it’s not about you, it’s about the fans and that’s what they want so you give them what they want."

I then ask if he’s tired of talking about the song like it’s the only thing the group has ever done. Was there pressure to repeat their success?

"You can always try to come up with something better but a massive song is a massive song," he says. "No matter how good of a song you would come up with, sometimes that massive song will always overshadow the other songs."

Isaiah tells me that the Baha Men are the only music group to successfully cross over from the Bahamas to the mainstream United States, but a 100 Interviews fan says that’s not strictly true. There are a few others but nothing as well known. I wonder privately if this is why the one-hit wonder status of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” doesn’t bother Isaiah; it was a crazy fluke that the song even happened.

"What about that song do you think made it so popular?" I ask.

"I think it would be kids fell in the love with the song overall," he offers. "Little kids are the one who really picked it up and they’re the ones that brought it to the adults. Plus once, baseball teams picked it up, you can really expect anything to happen."

He’s referring to the song’s continued play in arenas nationwide as a pump-up jam for athletes. I ask if they still play the song (they do) and what their concerts are like. I tell him I imagine it’s just a big dance party, like the “junkanoo” festival they were originally modeled after.

"That’s what it’s all about," he agrees. "A big party."

In its heyday, the group won a Grammy for “Who Let the Dogs Out?” (Best Dance Recording), among numerous other awards. Baha Men last released an album ‘Holla!’ in 2004. In 2009, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” resurfaced in the zeitgeist in the road trip comedy ‘The Hangover.’ (“Someone just called me today about it going into a movie,” he says proudly. “It happens often for the song.”) Isaiah also makes sure to mention that Baha Men did songs for the frivolous ‘Garfield’ movie and for the ‘Shrek’ franchise.

"I don’t know if this has ever been addressed," I say, pausing because I can’t believe I’m about to go for it in the end. "But…who did let the dogs out?”

Isaiah laughs a little, but not enough to convince me he’s not going to finish our call by hanging up on me. “It’s the girls at the party,” he says finally. “It’s when you’re having party and guys show up to the party and they’re hitting on the girls at the party and the girls say, ‘Well, who let the dogs out?’ Do you know what I mean?”

For a moment, I’m speechless. Has it really always been that simple? This ambiguous question that has been chanted in supreme fun for more than a decade is actually an anti-sexual harassment PSA? When I get my brain working again, I tell Isaiah that I definitely know what he means.

"I’ve been thinking ‘Who let the dogs out?’ to myself in different words without knowing it since I was thirteen," I reply, and it’s an honest thought I’m having.

For the first time in our whole interview, Isaiah laughs really hard.

As for life after one-hit wonderdom, Isaiah says he’s “very grateful.”

"The ultimate goal is to still get out there and be the best that you can be," he says. "I mean, hey, you can’t ask for more than that."

Notes

  1. ochenda reblogged this from 100interviews and added:
    Just in case you were wondering who let the dogs out. :P But you should go read the rest of these interviews. There are...
  2. bridgers reblogged this from 100interviews and added:
    new favorite blog....writer, Gaby Dunn, interviews 100 different people
  3. idegosuperid reblogged this from 100interviews
  4. angeda reblogged this from 100interviews
  5. gabydunn reblogged this from 100interviews and added:
    I do some real hard-hitting journalism in which I find out, finally: WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
  6. dangeresque said: my guess was a-ha, so i like to think i was just off by one letter ;)
  7. 100interviews posted this
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