As the year 2000 rolled along, Bahamian singing group The Baha Men released a song entitled “Who Let The Dogs Out”. In an instant, “Who Let The Dogs Out” was everywhere all of the time, becoming one of the most recognizable songs in the world. The Baha Men won a Grammy Award that year for Best Dance Recording.The song made it as high as #2 on the charts, selling over five million copies worldwide. Even though “Who Let The Dogs Out” had its moment and eventually faded into the background as people got tired of hearing it played so often, I am willing to bet all of the money in my wallet right now that if I were to walk into the middle of a crowded bar or restaurant and shout out, “Who Let The Dogs Out” at least some of the people there would respond by barking four times. Guaranteed!
Ordinarily in these music posts of mine, I would proceed from here and tell you about the background of The Baha Men and perhaps why the song was written or maybe even some connective anecdote about how the song relates to my own life, but that is not how this is going to go today. The reason is that the story of “Who Let The Dogs Out” is one of the most unusual I have ever written about. For starters, “Who Let The Dogs Out” is not a Baha Men song, and in fact, it may not even be a song at all! It just gets weirder from there. Buckle up, my beauties! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride. The story of “Who Let The Dogs Out” spans several decades, takes place in almost a dozen different international locations, involves numerous lawsuits and, in the end, wrestles with the questions of when does a song become a song and is it possible to copyright words, phrases and melodies that are already in the public domain? It is a detective story for the ages.
It all began in Nassau in the Bahamas because of an annual cultural festival called Junkanoo. During Junkanoo, there are many parades that are held. These parades consist of steel drum bands on floats that all compete against one another to see who has the best song, all the while scantily clad men and women dress in fancy costumes and dance in the streets. The whole Junkanoo Festival is a big party that attracts people from all over the world. One of those people who flew into Nassau every year was a hairdresser from England named Keith. This man, who turned out to be named Keith Wainwright, was not an ordinary cutter of hair. He worked at a salon called Smile, which was one of London’s trendiest salons, serving clients such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music (for which he was given a credit for helping to design their debut album cover) and many more. Because of the nature of his clientele, Keith Wainwright attracted the attention of many record executives who also came to get their hair styled all the while picking his brain for industry insider secrets. One of the things that helped to endear Wainwright, the hairdresser to these record execs, was that each year he would fly to Nassau to attend the Junkanoo Festival. He would return to London a week or so later armed with cassette tapes of all of the latest songs that were performed by bands during the parades. To the London record executives, these cassette tapes were akin to finding treasure. In 1998, when Keith returned from the Bahamas with his cassettes, he happened to be cutting the hair of an executive named Jonathan King. King eagerly accepted the cassette tapes and gave them a listen back at his office. One of the songs that he heard was a rendition of “Who Let The Dogs Out”. King immediately thought it had potential to be a hit, so he recorded his own version of “Who Let The Dogs Out” under the name Fat Jakk and his Pack of Pets. King peddled his own tape around but found no takers. Eventually, he thought of a man named Steve Greenberg. Greenberg was the manager of The Hanson Brothers (who you might remember from their bubble gum hit “Mmmbop!”). In any case, Steve Greenberg was also the manager of some Caribbean acts, including one group of singers who were known as The Baha Men. The Baha Men was a singing group that was well known in the Bahamas . They had a long track record of singing songs that had to do with Caribbean culture and history. So Jonathan King contacted Greenberg and presented him with the song “Who Let The Dogs Out” and asked for his opinion. Greenberg immediately thought of The Baha Men and brought the song to them. At the time, the lead singer of the group was a middle aged man named Isaiah Taylor. Immediately he declined to record the song (for reasons we will learn at the end of this post). However, Greenberg persisted. Eventually, Taylor was replaced by three new young singers and the track was recorded. The song was unleashed upon the world in July of 2000, and the rest should have been history. But in reality, the success that the song had is just the start of the story. It was that success that launched everything else that followed.
Imagine that you are a professional singer in the Caribbean. You have a well-established career that includes many records of your own. You haven’t had any world wide smash hits, but you are doing ok and earning a good living from your music just the same. Then you begin to hear rumours that another Caribbean band has managed to score a breakout hit song. Initially you are excited for your brothers and their success. Then you hear their song on the radio, and it turns out to be one of your songs. That was what happened to a Trinidadian singer named Anslem Douglas. For years Douglas had been a popular entertainer who performed all throughout the Caribbean. One of the most popular songs that he performed during his shows was a song called “Doggie”. This song was a pro-feminist/anti-misogynist song that Douglas recorded in 1996 which possessed a chorus that chanted “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!”. Suddenly, that chorus which, if we are being honest, is the whole selling point of the song, was earning millions of dollars for another band. Neither The Baha Men nor their manager Steve Greenberg had ever reached out to Douglas to seek permission to cover his song. They just did it. Now they were all getting rich because of it, and Douglas wasn’t seeing a penny for his own efforts. Needless to say, Anslem Douglas launched a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement because, obviously, the song “Who Let The Dogs Out” originated with him. Or did it?
In 1995, a pair of Toronto-area DJs named Patrick Stephenson and Leroy Williams created a ten-fifteen second intro/outro-style piece of music that was to be used to bookend a sports show segment that was airing on a Buffalo radio station. The jingle they wrote was simply nine words repeated twice in a primal, grunt-like fashion: “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” Needless to say, when Stephenson and Williams heard The Baha Men’s rendition racing to the top of the charts they, too, wondered how such a thing could have happened because, after all, they were the ones who wrote the catchy chant. As one might expect under such circumstances, a lawsuit was launched on their behalf as well.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse. It soon became clear that the history of the song lyric “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” went way back in time. A female rapper named Gillette came forward showing that she was singing that line in 1994 in a song she called “Who Let Them Dogs Loose”, before Stephenson and Williams had written their jingle, before Anslem Douglas had recorded “Doggie” and well before The Baha Men had taken their star turn in 2000. But just as Gillette and her production company 20 Fingers spoke up, a pair of Miami-area rappers came forward with evidence that they had recorded “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” back in 1992. They had done so by recording the song segments separately, much in the same way that Hip Hop artists were becoming proficient in using samples in their original songs. The rappers, known as Miami Boom Productions, had recorded the song segments on two floppy disks. These disks went a long way toward settling some of the legal issues raised by this series of copyright lawsuits. Using advanced technology, audio specialists were able to extract the original Miami Boom Productions recordings from the floppy disks and compare them, side by side, to those of Gillette, Stephenson/Williams, Anslem Douglas and The Baha Men. When shown together, all four versions were virtually identical in structure and timing.
The final fly in the ointment of this case came from a small town in Michigan called Dowagiac. You may be aware that football is a very popular sport in the United States. It is played at high school, college/university and at professional levels. Highschool football happens on Friday nights. For smaller communities such as Dowagiac, Friday night football is the height of excitement for those who live there. In the 1980s, the Dowagiac High School football team won the state championship. It was the most extraordinary time in the history of the town. One of the things that unified the experience for everyone was the use of a chant that went “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!”. The home football stadium became known as the Dog Pound. There were numerous televised news reports by reporters covering the championships that had recorded proof of the Dowagiac crowd and players all singing that chanted line at the tops of their lungs…in the 1980s!!!! A full two decades prior to The Baha Men version hitting the airwaves and becoming a music phenomenon.
This brings us back to the resolution of the numerous lawsuits, the answer to the question of what constitutes an actual song and when does copyright apply and, finally, we learn why the original singer of The Baha Men, Isaiah Taylor, refused to sing the song in the first place. If you were to Google the song title “Who Let The Dogs Out”, you would find information that would state that the song was recorded by The Baha Men, but that it was written by Anslem Douglas. Douglas received sole songwriting credit and was entitled to retroactive royalty payment as well as receiving all future songwriting royalty payments. Someone else may have gained fame singing his song (verses and the famous chorus), but he got his due in the end and then some. Anslem Douglas is a millionaire today because of this settlement. All other plaintiffs were ruled as being ineligible for a variety of reasons, the most common being that the chanted chorus line of “Who Let The Dogs Out! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” is technically not a song in the legal sense of what a song is viewed as being. Instead, that line was deemed to be a chant. A chant is something like a word or phrase that can be used in numerous situations by a variety of people, thus causing exact ownership to be difficult to ascertain and, for that reason, copyright does not apply. This brings us to Isaiah Taylor. Waaaay back when manager Steve Greenberg brought him the cassette tape that included the song “Who Let The Dogs Out”, Taylor immediately recognized it as being a chorus line chant that had been floating around the Caribbean for as long as he could remember. How could he claim ownership of a line in a song that was embedded into the history and culture of an entire region that he loved? He couldn’t. So, he refused to record it as lead singer and was replaced. Taylor remained a member of The Baha Men but was relegated to the chorus section. Nonetheless, he and his friends became rich from a chant that was steeped in the history of the Caribbean. The song remains one of those tunes that everyone in the world knows…at least they know the chorus anyway. Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!
***There is an absolutely excellent documentary that was made about the complex history of this song. The documentary was made by a gentleman named Ben Sisto. Sisto first got involved in the detective story behind the song when it first came out. Interested in the background of how it came to be a hit, Sisto started his research on the song’s Wikipedia page. It was there that he noticed the entry for the English hairdresser known only as Keith. Sisto knew that having no last name given was not proper notation, so he decided to find out who that man was so he could correct/update the Wikipedia page and satisfy his curiosity. He wasn’t too far into that mystery when the whole complex saga revealed itself, and eight years later, Sisto was premiering a documentary about it all at the SXSW Festival. That documentary is available to view for free on TubiTv right now. It’s called…drum roll please…”Who Let The Dogs Out”. It is an hour long and highly informative and entertaining. Every person mentioned in today’s post appears in that documentary. In addition, Ben Sisto deserves a lot of credit for the information contained in today’s post.
The link to the official website for The Baha Men can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Junkanoo Cultural Festival in Nassau, Bahamas can be found here.
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