One way to truly appreciate the transcendent, globe-shrinking power of a hit song: Stand witness as 20,000 Bahamians sing along, at 1:30 in the morning, to a ballad first recorded by a redheaded British sprite. Ed Sheeran, the young West Yorkshireman responsible for “Thinking Out Loud,” a paean to everlasting love, was not on the main stage of the Junkanoo Carnival in Nassau, on May 9, but his recent chart-topper was there in full, spun by a DJ. Even those whose musical tastes veer hard away from pop ballads would have conceded that the sight of so many people swaying and belting it out in unison was as stirring as it was unexpected.
The crowd had not gathered at that hour for an impromptu karaoke session. The DJ was playing Sheeran’s ballad to kill time while grizzled roadies set up the stage for one of the headliners of Junkanoo, a multiday, government-sponsored music festival. And, love ballad and all, the audience eventually grew impatient. Fans wanted to hear the Baha Men, the most successful act the Bahamas has ever produced. They wanted, most of all, to hear the band shout its famous question. It was the question that exactly 15 years ago turned the Baha Men into a household name overnight. It was the question that brought them (often very famous) fans and (often very heated) haters in equal measure. And it was the question that, in many ways, made them one of the first musical sensations to spring from stadiums of frenzied sports fans and arenas; in those venues that query was entirely inescapable in the year 2000 and was, without irony, adopted as a rallying cry by athletes and teams across the country. It was, in its way, one of the most widely asked musical questions of all time.
In 1998 a guy brought a VHS tape to Steve Greenberg, then an executive at Mercury Records in New York City. The gentleman introduced himself as the leader of a band called Fat Jakk and his Pack of Pets, and the tape contained a music video for a cover of a Caribbean-flavored song that he hoped Greenberg would produce. “It was just an awful record,” Greenberg says now. “Humans in giant animal costumes running around—it was the stupidest video I’d ever seen. . . . But the hook stuck in my head.”
“Who let the dogs out?” the song repeatedly inquired.
“Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!” came the response.
Greenberg knows hits. In 1997 he produced a song, “MMMBop,” by a group of young brothers named Hanson, that reached No. 1 in 27 countries. Before that, he earned a master’s degree from Stanford in Applied Communication Research—in essence, he’d studied why some new things become popular, and others don’t. Greenberg suspected that Fat Jakk would fall into the latter category. But the song was another story, and he soon found himself scouring online message boards, rifling through the world music rack at Tower Records, searching for its provenance.
Finally, he found it: The song had been written and originally recorded by a Trinidadian named Anselm Douglas, under the title “Doggie.” Greenberg wanted to remake and rename the tune, and he knew just the hardworking, musically gifted band that could turn it into his next chart topper.
Five years earlier Greenberg had signed a six-man Bahamian act called High Voltage (a few members of which had been playing and recording together since the late 1970s) and rechristened them the Baha Men. In ’94 the gang appeared as themselves in the romantic comedy My Father the Hero, alongside Gerard Depardieu and a 15-year-old Katherine Heigl. They became huge, not just in the Caribbean but also, for some reason, in Japan, where they toured for seven years and where fans would queue up six hours before their shows. Still, after four albums on three separate labels, the Baha Men had yet to make a dent in the U.S. In early 2000, Greenberg believed that could change.
He faced two problems: The band didn’t want to cover another Caribbean act’s song, and the lead singer, Nehemiah Hield, had just quit. But Greenberg convinced the group that this was the crossover hit they’d been looking for, and after holding open auditions at a Nassau resort, the Baha Men had not just one new singer but three—Rik Carey, Marvin Prosper Knowles and Omerit Hield, all around 20 years old—who also gave them some younger blood. (Several of the group’s founding musicians were by then nearing 50, including Rik’s father, guitarist Patrick Carey.)
The recording process presented its own hurdles. “They were great singers and musicians,” says Greenberg, “but they were crummy barkers. I couldn’t get them to bark up to my standards, so I barked myself. I’m the main barker on the record.”
Doubters remained. “I was skeptical about the song’s appeal,” says Mike Mangini, a veteran producer who worked with Greenberg on the track. “Steve laid it all out for me: ‘They’re going to be playing it in stadiums across the country. It’s going to win a Grammy.’ I was like, ‘O.K., sure it is, Steve.’ Every single thing he predicted came true.”
The key to fulfilling Greenberg’s vision was actually getting the song played in stadiums. He imagined tens of thousands of fans joyously barking along as their team took the field, and again when they had something to celebrate. To that end, as he was preparing to release the song—on a new label, S-Curve Records, that he established for the occasion—he hired a marketer, Fred Traube, to court stadium entertainment directors across the country. “I told Fred, ‘I want you to find the guy who plays the records in every stadium and work that guy like he’s a radio station programmer.’ Today it’s common, but back then nobody did this.”
Vito Vitiello, the Mets’ director of entertainment for the past 24 years, says Traube’s pitch went like this: “You gotta play this, you gotta play this, you gotta play this. . . .” And it worked. “Who Let the Dogs Out” became Ray Lewis’s theme song as he led the Ravens to Super Bowl XXXV (“Ray would invite us to his parties—this is how tight we were,” says Rik Carey) and was adopted by UConn’s dominant women’s basketball team, the Huskies. But the song truly caught hold in major league baseball, where the Mariners were one of the first teams to adopt it. “That started as a goof,” says Traube. “Seattle had a country-western catcher, a square white guy”—Joe Oliver—“and to break his balls they played ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ as his walk-up music. But Alex Rodriguez liked it so much, he stole the song for himself.”
By October 2000, no fewer than five of baseball’s eight postseason teams (the Cardinals, Giants, Mariners, Mets and White Sox) were playing “WLTDO” as their rally song. When the Mets reached the World -Series—against the Yankees, who had played it for a time before ceding it to their crosstown rivals—they hired the Baha Men to perform before Game 4, in front of 55,000 fans. “I can’t stand that ‘Let Out the Dogs’ song,” lamented then Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday. “I have three dogs of my own.” His team, and his fans, disagreed.
“Most songs peak on radio,” says Greenberg. “ ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ peaked at the World Series. It was the biggest sports anthem ever, in the sense that it got all its strength from being a sports anthem, and the radio was secondary. It was the only hit record that was ever like that.”
But why this song? And why like that?
Greenberg has a theory. While the lyrics concern competing groups of men and women in a club, very few listeners tried to decipher them—they focused instead on the pulsing sound, the catchy hook. “Who let the dogs out? It could mean anything,” the producer says. “You’re free to project any meaning you want. But it sounds cool to say it.”
Herschel Small, one of the band’s longtime guitarists, suggests that the song managed to tick all the boxes that 15 years later are common to many viral Internet memes: dogs and sports and kids (to whom its infectious barking appealed). Says Small, “As the song started to catch on, our road manager said, ‘Guys, even if you wanted to stop this, you couldn’t. This song has its own legs.’ It just took off.”
In the year after “WLTDO” was released, the Baha Men flew more than 100,000 miles as they ricocheted between stadiums and talk shows—“Sally, Leno, Regis and Kathie Lee—twice,” says Small. Their full-length album, also called Who Let the Dogs Out, reached No. 5 on the U.S. charts and went triple platinum (roughly 3.5 million copies sold) almost entirely on the strength of a single hit. In February 2001, as Greenberg had predicted, the Baha Men won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording, though two members would miss the moment—they had ducked out for pizza.
Afterward, a sour Moby, whose “Natural Blues” lost out in the same category, said, “I think it’s quite a catchy little pop song, and my feeling is, if I’m going to lose an award, I’d rather lose to a novelty act than a serious act. It feels like less of a slight.”
To Bahamians, though, “WLTDO” was more than a novelty. When the Baha Men (the only Grammy winner that the archipelagic nation has produced) returned home following their year in the States, they were feted with a victory parade that circled the entirety of New Providence, their 21-by-seven-mile home island. “It was crazy,” says Rik Carey. “People lined both sides of the road holding Baha Men posters, wearing our T-shirts and hats, chanting our name.”
The Baha Men were more than a one-hit wonder. They were national heroes.
The vinyl tent that had been erected as the Baha Men’s dressing room stood empty as midnight approached in Nassau. Inside, a table dotted with trays of cold cuts, covered by sweating Saran wrap, sat untouched as thumbnail-sized beetles buzzed around a single light bulb dangling from the roof. The Baha Men were late arriving—though it wasn’t the band’s fault; security had to be persuaded to let them all in.
The guards couldn’t be blamed. The Baha Men hadn’t played a public show in the Bahamas in eight years, and three of the nine members had been replaced since their heyday. Gone were the old drummer and two of the three singers, including the platinum-haired Prosper Knowles, who’d originally shouted the chorus and performed the song’s tongue-twisting rap.
The band produced songs for several movie soundtracks and released three albums after “WLTDO,” the last in 2004, and though none included a hit, there are other reasons for their long stretch of inactivity. Isaiah Taylor, the band’s bassist and leader, cites poor management and a desire not to dilute the Baha Men brand. Dyson Knight, a singer who joined in 2006, says it’s something else too: “I feel like the guys were a bit relaxed, not really eager to get out there and do anything.”
“WLTDO” made the band wealthy—although not as much as you might think, largely because they didn’t write the song and they had to split their share of the proceeds nine ways. (One industry insider estimates that the band’s total take from U.S. record sales was between $3 million and $4 million.) “It did very well for me,” says Taylor, who won’t confirm numbers, “but I was dumb; I gave away all the money to people who needed help. I believed that’s the best thing anyone can do in life.”
Another explanation for the Baha Men’s quiet decade is a plight shared by many acts who produce out-of-the-blue smashes: a cultural backlash that can overwhelm a band, no matter its musical chops. “That song was a double-edged sword,” says Taylor. “It was very good for us, but it was very bad for our other songs. It overpowered them. I believe we have better songs, but ‘Dogs’—I don’t care how good we bring it, that’s going to kill it.” The song eventually became a punch line, its nadir coming in 2008 when presidential candidate Mitt Romney shouted its chorus—and then barked—as he posed for a photo alongside a group of African-American voters.
“I am proud to have two songs [including “MMMBop”] that always make the top 10 of every Worst Records of All-time list,” says Greenberg, whose S-Curve Records recently produced the Andy Grammer hit “Honey I’m Good.” “Except they’re not. ‘Dogs’ is a really good record. That’s why it won a Grammy. It’s tight, it’s colorful, it’s infectious. There was magic in that record.”
Though they long ago amicably split from Greenberg, the Baha Men are now attempting to produce more magic. Their new album, Ride With Me, will be released by Sony in mid-August; its first single, “Night and Day,” appeared on the official FIFA 2014 World Cup compilation, and its second, “Off the Leash,” calls back to “Dogs.” That one “will definitely kick in clubs,” says the track’s producer, Troyton Rami, a Grammy winner for Sean Paul’s “Gimme the Light.” Adds Knight, “It’s very difficult to re-create a song like ‘Who Let the Dogs Out,’ and we didn’t try. What we tried to do was re-create that energy and that life.”
This, really, encapsulates the challenge facing any band that has experienced some success, particularly one whose hit became such a cultural touchstone, tied to such a specific and now long-ago moment—and, you know, involves barking.
The Baha Men admit they are sick of rehearsing “WLTDO,” but they insist they’ll never tire of playing it live. “Trust me, every time we perform it, you can forget all the backlash,” says Rik Carey. “The outcome is always the same.”
When the Baha Men took the stage at the Junkanoo Carnival, the crowd, packed shoulder-to-shoulder and waving glow sticks, received them respectfully at first. The band members were well prepared for their 90-minute set—they’d been rehearsing for this night every weekday for six months—and the audience politely, if not raucously, swayed to their old local hits, as well as the new stuff. Then everyone got what they had been waiting for. It was 2:54 a.m., and 20,000 people were barking.