Saturday afternoon at South by Southwest, I had a choice between watching presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speak and watching a documentary about the making of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Guess who I chose? Who? Who? Who? Who?
When a local high school band marched into Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and blasted a tuba-heavy version of the Baha Men classic, I knew I had made the right call.
Ever since said Bahamian junkanoo outfit unleashed their earworm on the world in 2000, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” has been “one of the great unanswered questions of our time,” according to Ben Sisto, a New Yorker who has been trying to unravel the song’s mysterious and controversial origins for nearly a decade. If you think Sisto is exaggerating the question’s importance, remember that another presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, asked it on the campaign trail. (Yes, that really happened.)
At a Q&A following the premiere of the documentary, Sisto recalled the moment, in 2010, he decided to edit the song’s Wikipedia page. “I didn’t have a job and I was smoking a lot of weed,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd at Alamo Drafthouse. The simple Wikipedia edit sent him down a rabbit hole of research that turned him into the self-declared “world’s leading expert on ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’” Seriously: At one point there was a “museum” in his apartment featuring over 300 items related to the song. He even has the death metal version of it on vinyl.
Sisto’s research culminated in a traveling powerpoint presentation about the tortured lineage of the song, which has resulted in several lawsuits. We caught it in 2017, when he spoke at what was then his place of employment, the Ace Hotel; filmmaker Brent Hodge saw it in Boston and knew immediately that he had to turn Sisto’s self-described “journey of a lifetime” into a documentary.
“I watched this thing and I just thought, ‘He’s done all the work.’ This is a movie already,” Hodge said after the screening. “I’m basically the Baha Men and I just took his work and took all the credit for it.”
Hodge was referring to the fact that the Baha Men weren’t actually the first to record the song. As described in the film, they got it from their manager Steve Greenberg at S-Curve records (he also discovered Hanson of “MMMBop” fame, so you can thank him for two miserably memorable songs). Greenberg got it from Jonathan King, a British producer who had recorded his own version of the song after hearing it on a mix tape that his hairdresser got while at Trinidad’s Carnival. The song on the mixtape was “Doggie,” by Anslem Douglas, who was forced to admit in court that he based it on a Canadian radio station’s hook in the mid-’90s.
But it doesn’t stop there. A song called “You’re a Dog,” a collaboration between producers 20 Fingers and singer Gillette (you may or may not remember their song “Short Dick Man”), dates back even further, to at least 1994, and features a remarkably similar hook: “Who let them dogs loose?”
Though the Baha Men are interviewed for the film, they remarkably are a very minor part of it. If you’re expecting this documentary to unfold amidst the lush beachscapes of the Bahamas, think again. One of the most memorable scenes occurs in the parking lot of a Little Caesars in Jacksonville, Florida.
Joe Gonzalez and Brett Hammock of Miami Boom Productions say they wrote the song as teenagers while working at the pizzeria, and they have the bread bags with lyrics scrawled on them to prove it. They also give Sisto a floppy disk, purchased in 1992, that contains the samples they used for the song. Sisto gets a data preservationist to clean up the files so they can be played on the 1980s drum machine that was used to create them, and the question arises: Did two dorky white teenagers from Florida pen “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
That was as far back as Sistero could date the song when he stopped giving his presentations, but the documentary turned up new evidence: It turns out “Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?” was a popular sports chant years before it appeared in a song. In fact, the film dates the rallying cry all the way back to the mid-’80s, to the very Austin school, Reagan High School, whose marching band opened the premiere. It likely dates back even further; Hodge admitted he was playing to the local crowd with this cut of the film.
The final version of the film, which doesn’t yet have a release date, may feature an interview with Chuck Smooth, who released yet another version of the song in 1999. He’ll likely have to answer a question put to everyone else who was interviewed. At the premiere, Sisto gave his own answer to the question: “I think the dogs let themselves out by forming a symbiotic food-based relationship.”