"Who Let the Dogs Out?," the 2000 hit by Baha Men has cemented its place in American culture via movie soundtracks, stadium PA systems, and just about everywhere else imaginable. Seventeen years since its release, we've had plenty of time to ponder the question: who let the dogs out? But many didn't question the song's controversial past. What started as a female-empowerment chant played on a Carnival float in Trinidad and Tobago has gone through a bunch of legal cases and copyright disputes. And, like any great conflict in history, there are people seeking to preserve its story.
Ben Sisto has devoted the last seven years to studying the history of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" from its beginnings, following it through a web of characters all over the world, and examining the ongoing legal battles behind the scenes.
His immersive project, "Who Let Who Let the Dogs Out Out," includes a speaking event and a traveling museum exhibit of more than 250 pieces of merchandise related to the song and its history that he's used as evidence in his research. He uses items like record sleeves and liner notes as permanent, tangible sources to track the song's production history, personnel, and possible lyrical changes and censorship over the song's history. Items like t-shirts and singing stuffed animals demonstrate the song's progression from silliness to cultural phenomenon.
We caught up with Sisto to learn more about the song's history, the exhibit, and the amount of effort it takes to be the world's leading expert on "Who Let the Dogs Out?"
Noisey: I guess the first question here is: Why did you start doing this?
Ben Sisto: Um, well, I guess the long/short is, about seven years ago, I was between jobs, and I was spending a lot of time at the library just looking around at, I don't know, the internet for things like jobs, projects, stuff to do, whatever. And I had clicked on some article that was about "Who Let the Dogs Out?," because it was like the ten-year anniversary of the song then. And I think from that article, I was like, "Oh, I wonder what Wikipedia has to say about this song." And when I went to the Wikipedia page, I noticed there was this missing citation right at the top. It said the song was recorded off this float by a hairdresser named Keith, but it didn't have a last name and it didn't have a citation. So I knew of Wikipedia and Open Culture knowledge-sharing-type websites, and I thought that'd be a funny thing if I fixed that citation, I could tell some of my friends, like, "Oh, I just fixed the Wiki for 'Who Let the Dogs Out?'"
But what kind of happened was, when I tracked down this guy Keith, which was a little harder than I thought it would be, he ended up being a really, really cool guy, and he had all these other stories about having been the hair stylist for Roxy Music, and being really into steel drum music, and I just had a really good conversation with him. So I kind of thought, "Oh, maybe there's more here." And he said one or two things that, I guess, raised other questions. And I didn't intend for it to become a project, you know? I just kept saying, "If A, then B. Let me just keep asking questions." I think there was just a tipping point where I was like, "Oh, I think I might know more about this song and its kind of weird history than, like, anybody." So I kind of just went with it as a hobby.
I was going to say, I think for some people it's kind of a, I don't want to say novelty song…
Oh, no, it totally is. The song's producer, or one of the song's producers, Steve Greenberg, who worked with Baha Men, I think he would agree with that. He's also responsible for the band Hanson and "Mmm Bop." So he and other people involved in the song's history, I think, are sort of proud that they have this ear for jock jams, pop hits, things that are novelty but still have, I don't know…
Well, that, but I think for the people who made it, there is an amount of integrity involved. They're all people that are very aware of marketing and mass culture, and like pop.
Did you at any point have any moments of, like, "I'm devoting a lot of time to 'Who Let the Dogs Out?'"
Oh yeah. So, sometimes people are like, they'll say that I'm obsessed. And I like to be clear that I have a very full-time job and I'm, like, a normal person, and this is something that I've done, you know, an hour here and hour there. There's definitely been a few times where I've looked at the closet full of stuff I've amassed and thought, "When is this going to end?" I would say it's not a project that I'm totally in control of, but I'm doing my best to contain it. At this point, it's pretty much wrapping up, though.
That was my next question. Are you still actively doing research for this project?
I am, in so much as… What's started happening now is, instead of me being on the internet searching for things, I'm doing more public talks and presentations, and that's sort of opened this other avenue of information and object collection, where people will come to me and say, "I have this t-shirt that says 'Who Let the Dogs Out.' Do you want it for your museum?" So that's kind of cool to have that happening. Or someone will tell me, "Oh, this song that you're talking about, my uncle was actually a copyright lawyer or a lawyer who worked at whatever record label." So I'm getting more anecdotal and incidental information that kind of flesh out a wider picture of preexisting conditions that were required to compress into this moment.
Do you have an end goal? Is there a point you'll get to where you'll say, "I'm done"?
Not really. I think that it's something that, well, if there was ever a more formal institution that wanted to acquire the collection, that would be cool, just because I don't have the resources to really care for everything in an archival way. Everything I have is in Rubbermaid bins in the linen closet. Absent that, not really. I think that once I do this string of tour dates coming up, I'll probably be at a point where I'll put the whole story online with hyperlinks and all of the images and stuff. I don't know. It's kind of like a public domain kind of project, so I'm kind of loose about what actually happens to it.
At the height of your research, how much time would you say you were devoting to this a week?
I would say that there were some solid eight-hour, deep-dive marathons where I'd just locked myself in my studio and was staring at it. But I would say that, I don't know, it's kind of an hour-a-day type project. Like I said before, my day jobs have always been like 70-hour work-week jobs. The thing that actually took the most time to do is, there are a lot of people that maybe didn't want to talk to me at first, or required convincing that I wasn't approaching this in a malicious way. So there would be someone who I would talk to, but maybe then they'd be like, "Oh I've said too much." And I'd be emailing them politely every six months for like four or five years, and then finally they'd say, "OK, OK, I know you keep writing me. I'm going to send you this mp3 file. Sorry it's taken so long, here's this one question you needed answered." A lot of it has been that persistence.
Do you think there is more dirt to dig up that those people might be afraid of?
Yeah. Definitely. Well, maybe not dirt to dig up, but a lot of people who have been involved in legal cases about the song will say things like, "Oh, that was decided in court," or whatever. But actually, all of the court cases surrounding the song have been settled. There was never any legal decision about them. And a lot of those settlements have been based on one person versus another person's word. I definitely think there are one or two missing puzzle pieces in a chain still, and I think some of the individuals who might know that information definitely don't want to talk to me.
So where do you go from here?
Umm. Well, I'm going on tour! [Laughs]
Are you hoping someone comes out of the woodwork with these final bits of missing information?
Yeah. I'm not expecting to be on stage at PhilaMOCA and have someone walk in and be like, "I have the answer!" holding a 78 or something. But I hope that, I guess the thing that I would think would be the coolest outcome would be people come see the presentation and they think more about research as an artistic practice, and that the sort of line between research, presentation, and final artistic product, or whatever, they're all sort of the same thing. I don't like thinking about artworks as really having—this is going to sound so hippy dippy—beginnings or ends. Everything is based on prior art, and everything is source material for future art, and that is something that this story really illustrates.