Ben Sisto Knows ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’
July 26th is the 20th anniversary of the release of Baha Men’s “Who Let The Dogs Out.” To mark the occasion, 360°Sound spoke with Ben Sisto, the world’s foremost expert on the song. Sisto began researching “Who Let The Dogs Out” 10 years ago, when he stumbled upon the song’s Wikipedia page. He was intrigued by a “citation needed” tag regarding its origin.
The Baha Men’s version of “Dogs” is the most widely known, but they are far from the first to record it. Their recording is based on Anslem Douglas’s “Doggie,” a late ‘90s regional hit in the Caribbean that gained popularity during Carnival season. But Douglas wasn’t the originator either. The catchy hook actually goes back many years and has been fraught with copyright lawsuits.
Sisto’s research and subsequent multimedia presentation became the basis for the excellent 2019 documentary Who Let The Dogs Out (available on Hulu). Earlier this year, Sisto participated in a 99% Invisible podcast episode about the song. According to Sisto, the documentary and podcast together provide the full story behind the song’s complex and fascinating history.
360°Sound: What do you think is the legacy of the Baha Men’s “Who The Let The Dogs Out”?
Sisto: Very few songs are as widely known and have stood the test of the time, especially songs that are specifically pop novelty songs. People know a bunch of Beatles and Stones songs, but there are extensive back catalogs and many hits. There’s not a lot of one-hit wonders that are this known. I think it’s less about the Baha Men and it’s more a legacy about how the music industry worked at that specific time.
One of the big things that propelled the song into the spotlight was the way it was used very intentionally in pro sports marketing efforts. The label, S-Curve, manipulated early algorithms on the Nickelodeon website to upvote it. The mechanisms that helped propel it don’t exist in the same way today. Even apart from my research, you could just study what happened from the Baha Men releasing it forward as this other really interesting case study and what the music industry was.
The ‘Who Let Dogs Out’ documentary trailer:
Gregg Greene, the head of marketing for the Seattle Mariners, played the Baha Men’s version at Mariners home games in 2000. Was that the catalyst that launched it into becoming a hit?
Yeah, if you ask Gregg, I would say the answer is definitely. It’s one of those phrases that is very malleable and divorced from the rest of the lyrics. It’s sort of open-ended, and the lack of the question mark, it’s like, ‘Is it a question or not?’
People really like dogs. People like barking and chanting. It’s five syllables. It’s very easy for little kids to remember. It just has all the properties of an earworm. From there, when it gets into the right hands, and people know how to market it and bring it into situations that are ripe for it to explode, it will.
This is the original 1992 version by Miami Boom Productions. It is the first known case of the “Who Let The Dogs Out” chant being set to music:
It’s one of those songs where the chorus is repeated so much, and it’s the only memorable part of the song. I think it’s difficult for many people to understand what the Baha Men are saying in the verses. Does the song actually have some feminist and female empowerment overtones?
In the Anslem Douglas version [“Doggie” from 1998], it was definitely intended to have that meaning. That was the intent. The Baha Men version, I would be speculating if I thought that Steve Greenberg [the S-Curve Records founder who signed the Baha Men] or the Baha Men really knew or cared exactly what it was saying. I know the lyrics to the rap version are very different if you look them up on Google versus Genius. I’m not sure if they were ever really printed anywhere. Jokingly, Steve was like, ‘Who knows what he’s saying?’
The rap verse in the Baha Men version is very like a braggadocious male, like I’m going to get all the ladies in the club, kind of verse. Even though it is playful, it’s sort of aggressive in a heteronormative misbehavior way, so it goes against everything that the song was about. But I guess they just felt like, ‘Oh, rap is popular. It needs a rap in there.’ I’m not even sure why that’s in there.
Anslem Douglas’s “Doggie”:
I’m originally from Mississippi. I went to Ole Miss but had friends who were Mississippi State fans. They loved the Chuck Smooth version, which was played at MSU football games in 1998, a few years before the Baha Men’s version became a massive hit. I recall them liking Smooth’s version more, which is a lot different, it has more of a Miami bass sound.
[Chuck Smooth’s] label, Wingspan, apart from whatever I think about their business practices, was pretty interesting. They had some other instrumentals that were pretty good. The artwork for the Chuck Smooth “Who Let The Dogs Out” is like a super early example of stuff by Pen & Pixel. They were this design group that got really famous around the time they did the album art for this rapper named Big Bear. They were instrumental in ushering in the aesthetic of overly blinged out, almost intentionally bad Photoshop, mixtape-looking, like all the early Cash Money [Records] looking stuff. The Chuck Smooth version definitely was played in stadiums before [the Baha Men].
The 1986 video clip [in the documentary] from Austin [John H. Reagan High School] is the earliest I’ve ever found of people chanting it with a sports team. There were articles I came across that referenced the Jackson, Mississippi Mets. They were like a Mets franchise minor league team. There were one or two clippings I found from 1980 where they had their first baseman chanting a slightly more generic “Let the dogs out” phrase. I contacted the stadium, like the old organist and all these people, and no one had any idea what I was talking about. I think currently Austin, Texas holds the crown.
Chuck Smooth’s “Who Let The Dogs Out”:
So, who let the dogs out?
The answer changes depending on what you mean. It kind of depends who’s asking. If you ask, ‘who let the dogs out?’ Gregg Greene [of the Mariners] might say, ‘I did because I brought it to major sports.’ Anslem Douglas might say, ‘I did because I wrote the song that became the hit.’
When I was trying to do really deep unnecessary research to spice up my presentation, I remember reading a really great essay about the domestication of wolves. The traditional historical narrative was that human beings domesticated wolves and that’s how we got dogs. This author was talking about it being more of a symbiotic relationship, where, in return for food and shelter, the wolves were offering humans protection. So, you could kind of say dogs, through that process, let themselves out. There’s a lot of ways you can look at it.
[Editor’s Note: Sisto is currently working on a project with his longtime friend and collaborator D’hana Perry called Silent Partners, which provides monthly $1,000 grants to Brooklyn-based Black artists and movement workers. Funds are donated by anonymous white partners. To learn more about Silent Partners, click here.]