Documentary filmmaker Brent Hodge’s SXSW premiere Who Let the Dogs Out would have been fun to watch even if it had only been half as interesting. The film, which attempts to discern the provenance of the titular 2000 Baha Men hit, is a fascinating story about how ideas seep into the public consciousness, spread virally even in a pre-internet age, and become cultural touchstones that can travel around the world even before anyone cashes in on the global phenomenon. “Who Let the Dogs Out,” as a chanted phrase followed by a series of barking noises, predates the Baha Men song, and Hodge partners with Ben Sisto—who accidentally became the world’s leading authority on the song during a period of unemployment more than eight years ago—to find out where it originated.
The answer, you may be surprised to learn, appears to be Reagan High School in Austin. The documentary traces “Who Let the Dogs Out” from the Baha Men to the producer who tapped the Bahamian band to record the song (a friend of his had heard a version on a mixtape he got on vacation in Trinidad), then further back, to a pair of Canadian radio DJs who’d used it as a jingle in the mid-nineties. Those DJs may have initially heard it on a CD released in Miami in 1994, and the artist who recorded that CD perhaps acquired the infamous hook—it’s probably in your head right now—from a pair of aspiring teenage producers who’d created the track in 1991.
If you’re having a hard time following all of that, well, that’s to be expected. The story of how “Who Let the Dogs Out” earned its place in our culture is complicated enough to warrant a feature-length documentary. Yet the details, while fascinating, aren’t really the point.
During the making of the documentary, Hodge and Sisto received a tip: “Who Let the Dogs Out” didn’t originate in music at all. They learned that a high school football team in Michigan used it as a rallying cry on its way to a state championship, performing it during rallies and warmups as a call-and-response chant. The Dowagiac High School fans who appear in the film are proud of what it became—but, it turns out, it’s not really theirs either. Tracing the chant back through newspaper and television news archives, the filmmakers found “Who Let the Dogs Out” used in sports—mostly high school, mostly football—across the country over the course of several years, both before and after the Michigan school. It quickly bounced from city to city and state to state. The earliest instance they could find was at Austin’s Reagan High School in 1986.
At the film’s SXSW premiere, the current Reagan High School band performed the song, bringing things full circle. Of course, there’s also no guarantee that Reagan originated it. The ultimate point of the doc is that a meme like “Who Let the Dogs Out” appears to have no single origin. It just sort of is, and it belongs to everyone in some ways. The filmmakers talk to countless people who believe themselves to have coined the phrase—the legal battles over ownership of the song are extensive—but in the end, the dogs might have always been out. It’s possible that the first people to utter the chant were in Austin, doing so in support of Reagan High School sports—but it’s equally possible that whoever started doing it at Reagan simply picked it up from the fans of a rival school, recognizing the elemental energy of an eternal question about dogs and who let them out and the percussive force of the bark that followed. At the moment, “Who Let the Dogs Out” appears to belong to Reagan High School, but really, it belongs to us all.