The Anniversary

“Who Let The Dogs Out” Turns 20

The Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out” has existed for 20 years. There are adults of voting age who have never lived on a planet free of “Who Let The Dogs Out.” I almost feel worse about that than about the environmental legacy my generation and my parents’ generation are leaving them. Almost. Thanks to COVID-19, you probably haven’t heard the song in at least a few months, since at this point the only place it gets played is at live sporting events. But there was a time in this country when it was fucking everywhere — despite not actually being a big hit!

“Who Let The Dogs Out” was released July 26, 2000, and was almost instantly massive across much of the planet. It went to #1 in Australia and New Zealand, #2 in the UK and Ireland; it was a Top 5 hit in Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, and a Top 10 hit in Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. It even won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording on the same night Steely Dan upset Radiohead and Eminem. Believe it or not, though, “Who Let The Dogs Out” wasn’t a big chart hit in North America. It only made it to #14 in Canada, and #40 in the US. So this is probably the last time you’ll ever read about this song on Stereogum; Tom Breihan will be spared.

The Baha Men didn’t come out of nowhere. They weren’t some faceless act created to front a one-off single, like the pseudo-group Steam, who were credited with 1969’s “Na Na, Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye).” They had originally formed in their native Bahamas in 1977 as a disco-funk group called High Voltage and self-released a few albums under that name before they were signed to Big Beat Records in 1991. Then they became the Baha Men.

Their first few Big Beat albums combined island instrumentation with thumping bass ready-made for resort dancefloors. One of the foundations of their sound was junkanoo, a highly percussive form of Caribbean parade music, but they threw R&B, new jack swing, funk, hip-house, and whatever else was popular at the time into the mix; the whole point of their existence, the occasional ballad aside, was to get people dancing and possibly singing along. Their first single was a cover of “Funky Nassau” by the Beginning Of The End. The single from their second album was a version of King Harvest’s “Dancing In The Moonlight.” It was almost like they were inserting themselves into the lineage of one-hit wonders, without actually having a hit themselves… yet.

They left Big Beat for Mercury and made two more albums, I Like What I Like and Doong Spank. Neither of them did anything commercially despite hewing closely to the trends of the moment — seriously, they’re on Spotify, and they’re like a sample pack of charting sounds circa 1997-98 — with occasional splashes of “island” flavor. Steve Greenberg, the A&R man who’d originally signed them to Big Beat, still believed in them, though. Even after a third Mercury album, 2 Zero 0-0, was released only in Japan, he signed them to his own S-Curve imprint. And he brought them a song called “Who Let The Dogs Out.”

The Baha Men didn’t even want to record the song at first, but their manager pressured them into it. The original was written and recorded by soca/calypso artist Anslem Douglas, who released it as “Doggie” in 1998. English producer Jonathan King, who had a shit ton of hit singles in England beginning in the 1960s (and was later convicted of sexual assault of multiple underage boys), recorded a cover version under the pseudonym Fat Jakk And His Pack Of Pets. King brought the song to Greenberg, who brought it to the Baha Men. The lyrics dealt with overly pushy and obstreperous dudes making a nuisance of themselves at the club, annoying women who just wanted to party. Here’s Douglas’s version:

There’s a pretty fascinating episode of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast that goes deep into the origins not just of the song “Who Let The Dogs Out,” but the call-and-response that serves as its hook and chorus. The short version is that the chant, or a very similar one, occurs in multiple songs and even high school football cheers going all the way back to the 1980s. There are at least a couple of songwriters who feel, with some legitimacy, that they deserve credit and possibly a share of the swimming pools of money that the track has generated over the last 20 years.

(In 2001, Douglas was sued over authorship of the song; as it turned out, the chorus was part of a radio jingle written in 1995 by Patrick Stephenson and Leroy Williams of Just Platinum Recording Studios/Action House Studios in Toronto. They were able to prove that Douglas, who was a client of the studio at the time, had used their chorus for the song, and the suit was settled for an undisclosed sum, further muddying the question of who ultimately can be blamed for letting the dogs out.)

“Who Let The Dogs Out” didn’t really take off with the public until November 2000, when it was included on the soundtrack to Rugrats In Paris: The Movie. Before that, though, it had already become a popular choice at sporting events, thanks to the efforts of a sports marketing company hired by Steve Greenberg. The Seattle Mariners used it in June, before it was officially released, and Alex Rodriguez — the team’s then-shortstop — requested it for his walk-up music. Another baseball player, Richard Hidalgo of the Houston Astros, also used it as his entrance music. The Baha Men performed at a Mariners game in September 2000, but they weren’t displaying any particular loyalty, as they re-recorded the song as “Who Let The Mets Out?” for that team’s postseason games and performed it before Game Four of the 2000 World Series. In the years since, it’s been played at probably every sporting event on Earth, in a million movies and TV shows, and generally become a sonic meme.

Of course, that’s because of the chorus, and nothing more. If you actually listen to “Who Let The Dogs Out” in its entirety, it’s kind of a sonic patchwork. The verses are a collage of acoustic guitars, fake record-scratching, a bouncing bassline, and programmed drums that sound like someone shaking a marble in a coffee can while someone else whacks a leather couch with a ping-pong paddle. There’s a too-fast, unhinged-sounding rap, and an awkward bridge about dogs and their bones, and toward the end somebody starts grumbling/scatting in a gravelly voice that sounds uncannily like Tricky. It’s a weird agglomeration of elements that don’t really work together, but every time that chorus comes around, you’re barking along.

Compare that to the original, which was a stripped-down synth-and-drum machine song like a million others, built on a frantic rhythm track that fell somewhere between ’80s electro and Front 242. Musically, there was barely anything there. But it was a little more lyrically conscious — Anslem Douglas has an urgent, hoarse voice somewhere in the Bounty Killer/DMX range, and he makes the anti-bro element pretty explicit. Instead of some dude rapping at you about women on the bridge, a scornful woman mocks some guy for being an asshole who’s up in her face when she’s trying to have a nice night out at the club.

And yet, at the same time, there’s that party-starting chorus — one whose contagious qualities the Baha Men have failed to recapture in the intervening decades despite blatant attempts like 2015’s also-dog-themed “Off The Leash” and last year’s would-be jock jam “Let’s Go.” No one went wild for those songs the way they went wild for “Who Let The Dogs Out,” a song that was actually written to condemn certain parties for going too wild. In a way, it’s one of those hits that’s destined to be forever misinterpreted, like “Born In The U.S.A.” or “Every Breath You Take,” because the part you remember best means exactly the opposite of what you think. It’s not “Woo-hoo, somebody let the dogs out!” — it’s “Aw, fuck, who let the dogs out?”

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