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The History of a Hook: One Man's Quest to Unearth "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

Ben Sisto. Photo: courtesy the artist. 

During the winter of 2010, artist Ben Sisto noticed something: a missing citation on the Wikipedia entry for the song Who Let the Dogs Out?. He did a little digging that lead to a London-based hairdresser and steel drum aficionado who recalled some facts that contradicted other information on the Wikipedia article. Nearly eight years later, Sisto is the (self appointed) world's leading expert on Who Let the Dogs Out?. His collection of memorabilia, artifacts and evidence contains roughly 300 items—an archive Artnet called "...a fascinating, decade-spanning history" and Hyperallergic noted as being "strange and thoroughly amazing". 

On Friday, November 9, Sisto brings the fruits of his research to OpenGrounds, where he will be present an hour-long multimedia experience, Who Let Who Let the Dogs Out Out or WLWLTDOO. He will introduce UVA audiences to a host of colorful characters, dive deep into complex litigation, highlight the pros and cons of copyright law and make a strong case that the origins of one of the most well-known pop hooks of all time comes from a unlikely source. Given that WLWLTDOO is the most anticipated idiosyncratic OpenGrounds program this fall, intern Niko Marcich wanted to learn a bit more about Ben Sisto before he descended into Charlottesville. 

How have your earlier artworks and ideas shaped the vision of this project? Are there any parallels between WLWLTDOO and your other artistic works?

Prior to WLWLTDOO, I’d given a few talks on Happy Birthday. Those were based on the work of GW Law Professor Robert Brauneis; I was exploring live presentation formats; figuring out how to paraphrase for different audiences. I was also doing a rereading of the 2004 Whitney Biennial catalog; it came with a box-set of small projects (stickers, posters) by various artists but there was virtually no information about it online. So I retyped all their texts, measured all the works and made an archive. I even screen-captured its old website in full and ran those images through OCR. It had been made with Flash which doesn’t let you copy/paste and is thus kinda wack for research needs. I suppose I’ve always been drawn to projects that deal with repetition, sorting, scrubbing ...

Tell me more about your day job at the Ace Hotel. What are some of your favorite projects you’ve done for this hipster mecca?

It’s an interesting place. I’ve hosted runway shows for transgender designers, ran a residency program for psychics, and curate a dozen exhibitions a year. We once did a retrospective for the artist John Kilduff; his practice involves painting while running on a treadmill, making smoothies and taking calls all at the same time. We installed the same obscure, 90s model treadmill (Precor 9.1), which he used in his earlier videos. A cool grandma was selling it on Craigslist. So it’s all that, plus translating it into budgets, into digital marketing assets. We’re more like MoMA, less like Marriott.

Has WLWLTDOO inspired you to research the backstory of any other iconic pop songs with a controversial past?

I was sort of getting into the backstory of the song Agadou, which is maybe like The Macarena from England years back. It’s a bit similar to WLTDO in that it’s a bit annoying but, also (I would say) pretty solid. And it’s definitely a story about cultural appropriation and racism—but the trail is just kinda dead at a certain point. My latest gallery show was a bunch of blank pages from old books—I think after WLWLTDOO I had to swing back towards minimal. Maybe no more pop songs for a while.

If you could have your wish where would the permanent archive of WLWLTDOO be housed and exhibited? What’s the strangest bit of ephemera in your collection?

The Smithsonian. There’s this device that truckers can buy to interface with their horn system so when they pull their horn-rope, instead of a deep truck honk, it plays Who Let the Dogs Out?.

What’s typically the first thought that goes through your head when you hear Who Let the Dogs Out? playing? 

“They’re playing my song.”

Was it the artist’s intention to simply make this song a big hit? Who has benefitted the most from its success, and how many people have claimed to be the original artist behind the song?

It depends on which artist you’re talking about, the intention. I think some folks were just out to be in a cool band that sounded like 2 Live Crew, meet girls, and get enough money to buy new gear. Others had intention to combat dance-floor misogyny and some just heard a hook and knew it was pop-gold. Those last people, I don’t think did it “for the money”, they just happen to be people whose tastes and talent align with mass audiences in such a way that they made a lot of money. Some art fits neatly into the marketplace, some doesn’t. At present there are two duos who have claimed to be the original authors of the hook. The song the hook sits within, that most people know anyhow, was written by Anslem Douglas.

Could you give an estimate of the “net worth” of the song, including royalties to the original artist and other fake artists?

No idea. I know that some people who did background barks on the Baha Men version have, over the years, seen five-figures from royalties just associated with their barking. The Baha Men version was, of course, huge and to estimate not just the sales but licensing deals ... no idea, a lot. But prior versions by Douglas, Chuck Smooth, lesser known acts like Southsyde Conn X Shun or 12 Gauge .. some of those charted, got Billboard reviews, got money from settlements. I wouldn’t say any of them are fake.

Popular songs come and go; some stay on the beat longer than others, and some die quickly. And clearly, your work would have been limited if the song had been a one hit wonder or just hadn’t stayed in popular culture for long. Why has this song remained in pop culture for so long?

My work is about a hook, a hook that contains the phrase “Who let the dogs out” combined with the sound of dogs barking. It’s a short, memorable piece of pop that’s extremely licenseable for a number of applications. From stadiums to dance floors, people enjoy call-and-response works, and I’d suggest that based on Americans’ affection for dogs, we just kind of enjoy barking. It’s less that the song has permeated pop culture —the song is a container, a delivery mechanism for a powerful meme.

Can you discuss how social media has allowed you to pursue the project? Does this change the way we are able to examine oral history?

I’ve really only used social to get in touch with people lightly, when it’s my only option, and to promote events to people who I know only check site X. I prefer getting someone’s email or number; getting on the phone or meeting up in person. It gives the project more depth.

Regarding history, I’ve seen little indication that social media outlets have incentive to make the information they currently oversee available forever. These are companies, not publicly operated archives. You could argue it’s not their problem to begin with, but it’s important to remember that for some, the erasure of history is part of a business model. So you know, screenshot everything.