Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? Is there a God? These are some of the great unanswered questions of our time, though none perhaps greater than: Who let the dogs out?
Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.
Ben Sisto is mostly joking when he says this in the new documentary, Who Let the Dogs Out, which premiered Saturday at SXSW.
Yes, this is an entire documentary dedicated to the indelible Baha Men earworm, the cacophonous clangs of steel drums and club beats that, thanks to its seemingly nonsensical chant and hook, blanketed the entire universe in calypso barking during its irritating radio reign in 1999 and 2000, before setting up permanent retirement in the devious corner of your brain that has randomly played the song in your head once a month for the last 20 years, apropos of nothing.
Sisto spent eight years researching the questions at the heart of the song. Cheekily, sure, like “who” released the canines? What is the song even talking about? But also—and this one turned out to be more complicated than he imagined—who came up with the question in the first place?
Inspired by a sloppy Wikipedia entry one day while bored in a lobby, it’s a question that has taken him all over the world, from the Bahamas to London to Seattle, Jacksonville, and Dowagiac, Michigan. What he uncovered is one the most complicated and ultimately mysterious songwriting and copyrighting cases in music history.
It’s been 20 years, and we still can’t be sure who, really, let those damned dogs out.
“How can a question be asked that many times and nobody has bothered to get to the bottom of it?” Sisto wonders. He’s got a point. All that time sing-shouting the song’s seminal question, never once pondering its meaning, or deigning to provide an answer.
In 2008, Sisto read an article about the 10th anniversary of the song. He went to Wikipedia, which contained the factoid that the original hook was discovered by a British hairdresser named Keith while on vacation in the Caribbean. But Keith had no last name. That’s not a proper citation! At the time Sisto was unemployed, unattached, and a bit bored. So he set out on an adventure. Who let “Who Let the Dogs Out” out?
We follow him to Nassau, where we meet Isaiah Taylor, the leader of the Baha Men. Taylor tells the abridged story of how the song came to him.
Steve Greenberg, a record producer famous for discovering acts like Hanson, the Jonas Brothers, and Joss Stone, had received a cassette tape with the hook on it, and wanted to turn it into the first hit for his newly formed S-Curve Records. He brought it to Taylor and the Baha Men... and they said no. Eventually, of course, he convinced them, the song exploded, got Greenberg and Baha Men their first platinum record, a Grammy, and ubiquity.
But Greenberg, an American music executive, unsurprisingly did not write a Caribbean dance track himself.
Who did, as Sisto chronicles, is a tangled web of he-said/they-said that spans the globe involving a novelty act named Fat Jakk and His Pack of Pets, club music producers that go by the name 20 Fingers, Canadian radio hosts, the Seattle Mariners, two teenagers from Jacksonville, Florida, and a high school football team. Oh, and, of course, a hairdresser named Keith.
Keith Wainwright was the proprietor of a salon in London called Smile, which came to fame in the early U.K. punk scene. One year, Wainwright goes on a trip to Trinidad & Tobago, and has the time of his life. He keeps going back, bringing home cassette tapes and CDs with music he heard at Carnival there. British A&R executives began relying on those trips for new samples. That’s how Jonathan King, a record producer for Genesis, got his hands on “Who Let the Dogs Out,” a song on a cassette tape by an artist named Anslem Douglas.
King recorded the song himself and released it under the name Fat Jakk and His Pack of Pets, faking an embarrassing Caribbean accent. The track flopped, but the hook caught the attention of Greenberg, who then gave it to Baha Men, and... you see where we’re going with this.
Sisto interviews Douglas about the origins of the song, which he actually wrote as a female empowerment anthem. Who knew?! He was tired of hearing the derogatory term “skettel,” which translates loosely to slut, being used towards women. Tired of the misogyny, he wanted to write a song that would be a rallying cry.
He’s said as much before, in an interview on his website in 2016: “When I said the word ‘party’ I was being metaphorical,” he said, referring to the lyrics. “It really means things were going great. The ‘Yippie-Yi-Yo,’ that’s everybody’s happy, right? ‘And everybody was having a ball.’ Life was going great. ‘Until the men start the name-callin’ / And then the girls respond to the call.’ So the men started calling the women ‘skank’ and 'skettel,’ every dirty word you can think of. The men started the name-calling and then the girls respond to the call. And then a woman shouts out, ‘Who let the dogs out?’ And we start calling men dogs. It was really a man-bashing song.”
It’s a man-bashing song that became a massive hit. When that happens, the dogs, so to speak, really do come out.
The amount of people claiming authorship of “Who Let the Dogs Out” is staggering. Officially, Douglas is the credited songwriter. Douglas admits that it’s his brother-in-law he first heard the famous phrase from. His brother-in-law used to work for a Canadian radio show, where two producers say they were the ones who came up with the tagline as a radio jingle several years before Douglas’s brother-in-law took it to him. Anslem eventually signed a declaration saying they originated the hook he based the song on.
Then there’s Ossie Gurley, a music producer who is credited as the “arranger” on the Douglas album that “Who Let the Dogs Out” appears on. When he began working with Wingspan Records, Gurley gave the track to the company’s act, Chuck Smooth, assigning the record company a copyright retroactively even though it came after Douglas’s version. A legal battle between Douglas and Gurley was eventually settled out of court.
There’s also 20 Fingers, who wrote the song “You’re a Dog” with the refrain “Who let them dogs loose? / Woof woof woof woof” in 1994, before either Gurley or Douglas. And Joe Gonzalez and Brett Hammock of Miami Boom Productions, who say they wrote the hook on the back of a Little Caesars bread bag in Jacksonville when they were teenagers in 1992. And John Michael Davis, an alum of Dowagiac Union High in Michigan, who has a video of his football team using the chant in 1990. Then there’s all the footage of other sports teams barking in time stretching back to 1987.
And what role does the programmer for the Seattle Mariners have in launching the song into the stratosphere when he began using it as Alex Rodriguez’s entrance music in 2000?
It’s wonky and a lot to unpack, though Sisto does impressive, dedicated sleuthing. The answer is: there is no answer. It’s both extremely unsatisfying, but also seems just about right. The song belongs with the “Macarena” and “The Hustle” in the Hall of Fame of Innocuous Music Sensations. When a song is that everywhere, while also that nothing, it truly does feel like it manifests itself.
What is Sisto’s assessment, then? “It’s a song that just belongs to pop culture at this point. In a way, we’ve all let the dogs out.”
Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.