MOCA exhibit examines who really let the dogs out

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A “Who Let the Dogs Out” Frisbee, part of the exhibit.

Ben Sisto was reading the Wikipedia page for Baha Men’s 2000 hit, “Who Let the Dogs Out,” when he noticed a missing citation. It was 2010, and Sisto was likely enjoying a story on the song’s 10-year anniversary when he sought out background information, as is his habit.

“It said something like, ‘The song was recorded off a float by a hairdresser named Keith,’” Sisto recalled. (Currently, the “Who Let the Dogs Out” Wikipedia page does not refer to where the song was recorded.) “My initial effort was to find out who Keith was, exactly.”

Camera icon Courtesy Ben Sisto
Ben Sisto

After some digging, it was determined that Keith was Keith Wainwright, an English hairdresser who worked with Elton John, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and more. He was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011 for his contributions to hairstyling, including working with chemists to create colored hair dyes during the 1970s, Sisto said. They talked for a while when Sisto realized there were probably a ton of doggie stones left unturned. He was right.

The nearly eight-year research project culminated in the Who Let the Dogs Out Museum, a collection of nearly 300 artifacts and memorabilia related to the song. Sisto brings his findings, along with a presentation, to the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art on Monday and Tuesday.

An artist and cultural event programmer, Sisto had never deeply investigated cultural phenomena but found excitement in speaking face-to-face with the players involved in the song, originally recorded by the Trinidadian artist Anslem Douglas. He traveled to London to sit down with another major player in the song’s history, producer Jonathan King, who sent a version of Douglas’ song to Baha Men’s manager.

“He’s been arrested and served jail time for sex with minors,” Sisto said of King. “He’s a dicey character, to say the least. It was so weird to be face to face with his person who’s on the one hand, a music-industry legend, and on the other hand is this nefarious guy who doesn’t have a good relationship with the people of London.”

The talk will spotlight Sisto’s findings, including legal details from a friend of Douglas’ then-brother-in-law Patrick Stephenson, who sued Douglas for credit over the chorus, which the latter had written for a radio jingle. Stephenson skirted Sisto’s calls for five years. Suspicious, too, were many lawyers involved in the number of lawsuits that have stemmed from the song’s origins, suspecting Sisto had motives other than his anthropological project.

“I have an audio tape where it said, ‘I’m not trying to dig up dirt; I’m trying to find who let the dogs out.’”

Through the song’s widespread appeal — it’s frequently played at sporting events and was featured on the Rugrats in Paris soundtrack — Sisto has found a positive reaction from his presentations. After all, it’s hard not to have a connection with the song: the barking, the exuberance. But when it comes to the big question — who did let the dogs out? — the answer is much more complicated.

“I would say if you want to know who let the song from the underground culture and amplified it to this pop-level song everybody knows, it’s a guy named Steve Greenberg, who managed the Baha Men,” Sisto said. “But you can equally say that this guy Keith Wainwright let the dogs out by purchasing the illegal bootleg on a gut feeling that this was a cool track. You could say these radio jingle guys did. You can trace it back as far as 1992 to Miami Boom Productions, who put out a single that ‘who let the dogs out’ was the chorus.”

Or, finally: You can look at “the societal level, where you can say contextually within the song, dogs are sexually heteronormative cis men, and they’ve never been contained.”

 

Who Let The Dogs Out Museum

Gallery open from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday; lecture at 7:30 p.m.

Gallery open from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday, lecture at 7:30 p.m.

Suggested $5 donation

PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St.

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