That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Every once in a while, something happens in pop culture that seems to capture everybody’s attention. Whether it’s Harlem Shake videos, the ice bucket challenge, or Psy’s “Gangam Style,” these cultural phenomena are usually meteoric: they get popular quickly, show up everywhere, and, mercifully, burn out as quickly as they started. In early 2000, the ubiquitous bit of cultural ephemera clamoring for our attention was the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” You remember it, right?
The song is catchy, bright, and driven by a simple repetitive hook—all the things that make for a hit, the kind that gets played over and over and over and… And that, of course, happened. That translated into worldwide success, with the song reaching the Top 10 in most of Europe. Interestingly, the song didn’t do that well in the US, charting no higher than #40 on the standard Billboard Chart. (It did hit #6 on the US Dance chart, though.)
Its real US success came a year of so later, when “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was picked up as the de facto anthem for sports teams of all types and at all levels, as well as appearing on the soundtrack of a couple of movies. Shortly thereafter, the market was saturated with Baha Men clothing, toys, and lots more. (To this day, you can still buy Who Let the Dogs Out merch on both the primary and secondary markets.)
You might think that this bit of lightning in a bottle was a Baha Men original, but its history actually goes back decades, includes a couple of lawsuits, and is nearly as colorful as the Baha Men’s stage outfits.
Let’s start right off with something colorful. Junkanoo is a festival unique to certain parts of the Caribbean, particularly the Bahamas. The festival is marked by parades, floats dancing, and music. London hairstylist to the stars Keith Wainright was a frequent visitor to the Bahamas, and he loved to bring back recordings of the music he heard there to play for his clients. One song he heard there in the mid- to late 90s was Doggie by Trinidadian singer Anslem Douglas. For this article, we’ll call Douglas’ version the original.
A record producer heard Douglas’ song and smelled a hit. Through him, the song ended up in the hands of music impresario Jonathan King. King, who discovered the band Genesis, signed 10CC to their first record deal, invested in the original Rocky Horror Show theatrical production, and who has a long list of writing, performing and producing credits, decided to record the song himself. His version was released under the name Fatt Jakk and His Pack of Pets. This version has more of an EDM feel, and uses a few well-known samples, most notably Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is).”
Not having much chart success, he passed the song onto producer Steve Greenberg, who happened to manage the Baha Men. He thought that his group had the chops to make it a much bigger hit, but they initially balked at the prospect of making a cover record. Greenberg persisted and, after a personnel change within the band, they went ahead and recorded it.
Before the Baha Men’s version record was released, another version popped up on the charts in late 1998, this one by hip-hop artist Chuck Smooth.
This is a grittier mix, reminiscent of Sir Mix-a-Lot, that retains the hook and the chorus, but changes the lyrics of the verses significantly. Originally written as a pro-woman anthem calling out oversexed guys, Smooth does a 180 and goes full-on horndog, spitting rhymes like “I’m there when your husband’s workin’; he comes home I hide behind the curtain; he’s suspicious but not certain; I’m vicious, not just flirtin’,” and other verses less mild. This version only stayed on the charts for six weeks, topping out at #76.
During the same five or so years that this was all going on, the song (or at least the chorus) was surfacing elsewhere. Remember Anslem Douglas? Well, he says that it was his brother-in-law who came up with the hook that Anslem based the song on. The brother-in-law worked with a radio production company in Toronto. Two producers there, Leroy Williams and Patrick Stephenson, claimed that they originated the transition of the “who let the dogs out” from a simple spoken phrase into a musical jingle for the station, and were the first to add the “woofs” after the line was sung. That may or may not be true, as we’ll see in a minute.
Also working in Toronto radio was Ossie Gurley, who is credited as an “arranger” on the original record by Douglas. Gurley claims a bigger role, saying that he told Douglas, “You take care of the words, I’ll take care of the music,” and sued for 50% of the royalties. To muddy the waters even further, Gurley has an association with Chuck Smooth’s record label, creating even more claims against the profits.
In 1992, 1500 miles from Toronto, a pair of Miami rappers claim that they wrote and recorded a bass-heavy dance track that featured the familiar chorus but, again, vastly different verses. In 1994, 20 Fingers featuring Gillette recorded a song called You’re A Dog. Check out the chorus at the 2:10 mark. Amazingly, they have made no legal claim to authorship. While there are even more examples, suffice it to say that if these lyrics and versions and variations were written in the mid-to-late 90s, how can you explain the chant in this high school football highlight reel from 1987?
Is this all the result of a hive mind? Do we see, hear, and experience things across our lifespan that we don’t consciously remember, but that are sometimes recalled later on? We don’t know that anymore than we know the answer to the question posed in this song’s title. What’s important to remember is that music is for our enjoyment, and while The Baha Men’s version of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” is definitely a cover, it was, and still is, a fun song that became a cultural touchstone.