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Through the Woof

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in April, when Maverick Records executive Russ Rieger picked a then-unknown recording called “Who Let the Dogs Out” for use in the soundtrack of a new “Rugrats” movie, he couldn’t have known how big the catchy barking-and-rap tune would get before the album’s release today. But Rieger did know one thing: “It was magic.”

Magic indeed.

How else to explain the song’s exploding popularity as a kids’ TV favorite, a pop radio mainstay and a booming sports anthem?

In fewer than six months, the song has become something of a cultural phenomenon--and its success tells a lot about the unpredictable course songs can take in their journey to the pop charts. The tale of this single’s success also shows how the fortunes of a band can be changed overnight, after struggling for years to build an audience in this country.

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The Baha Men, the nine-member Bahamian band responsible for the recording (it’s actually a remake), have performed the tune in recent months everywhere from Nickelodeon to “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to game four of the World Series.

The group’s latest album, also titled “Who Let the Dogs Out,” has sold roughly 853,000 copies in the U.S., according to SoundScan. Their previous records--released on two major labels--were all poor sellers on the American market. The last one, 1998’s “Doong Spank,” sold fewer than 800 copies.

Many people played a role in the band’s recent success, but the story really begins with Steve Greenberg, president of S-Curve Records, the independent label that released the Baha Men’s new album.

Greenberg has worked with the band since he signed them to Atlantic Records in 1991. When he moved to Mercury Records a few years later, he took the band along.

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“It’s the greatest Cinderella story I’ve ever witnessed and certainly ever had a part in,” Greenberg said. “The notion that a band could have five albums on major labels and not succeed, and then still manage to have a big success is unheard of.”

Despite never scoring an American hit, the Baha Men became platinum sellers in Japan, largely on the strength of the 1994 single “Sunny Day,” written and produced by Lenny Kravitz, who is part Bahamian. That modest success enabled them to keep working as musicians, Greenberg said. “Every year, they could go and do a tour in Japan and make some money.”

In 1998, a soca star named Anslem Douglas wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out” for carnival season in Trinidad. The song, with its teasing references to men (the dogs) trying to flirt with women at a party, became a Caribbean hit. The women’s response in the song: “Get back, you flea-infested mongrel.”

Greenberg discovered “Who Let the Dogs Out” when a British producer approached him at Mercury Records with a “kitschy” version of the song, which he didn’t like. Nevertheless, Greenberg soon found--like millions have since--that he couldn’t get the song’s hook--the “Who Let the Dogs Out” shout followed by “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!"--out of his head.

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Bahamian Flavor Replaces Kitschy Style

When the Universal-PolyGram merger shook up Mercury’s corporate structure in late 1998, Greenberg left the company and started his S-Curve label. The first and only group he signed was the Baha Men. After securing the rights to “Who Let the Dogs Out” from Douglas, Greenberg persuaded the band members to record it for their next album, incorporating the junkanoo tradition of the Bahamas--West African-inspired rhythms mixed with reggae, heavy beats and cowbells.

Greenberg contracted Artemis Records to handle the album’s marketing and promotion. Even before the single was released to radio, Maverick’s Rieger had tapped it for the soundtrack to “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie.” “We were extremely fortunate to get a song that added to the experience of the movie and that was also a lot of fun,” Rieger said.

Nickelodeon, which broadcasts the “Rugrats” TV show, partnered with S-Curve to bring the Baha Men to its preteen audience. The cable channel played their video in heavy rotation, broadcast live performances by the band and promoted them online. (Nickelodeon and the studio behind the “Rugrats” film, Paramount Pictures, are both owned by Viacom.)

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“The relationship with Nickelodeon was a critical turning point in terms of breaking the record,” said Danny Goldberg, chairman of Artemis. “It’s one of the most powerful mediums in selling music to the young audience.”

The single also became a radio hit, eventually spreading to pop and urban stations around the country. But the real accomplishment came in making the song the sports anthem of 2000, something Greenberg said he set out to do from the beginning. “From day one, we engaged a sports marketing person whose sole job was to work this song to sports stadiums the way a radio promotion person would work a song to radio,” he said.

That person was Fred Traube, a marketing manager from Washington, D.C. “Major league baseball drew 70 million people to its games last season,” Traube said. “Being able to expose a music property to all those people is a great opportunity.”

Although the question of which stadium played “Who Let the Dogs Out” first is still in dispute, Traube said the Seattle Mariners were the first team to adopt it as a theme song. Gregg Greene, the Mariner’s director of promotions, said they first used the track as a batter introduction for catcher Joe Oliver. “He’s kind of a country and western guy, and we decided to have a little fun with him,” Greene said. “Three days later, Alex Rodriguez wanted it played for him.”

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The hometown fans loved “Who Let the Dogs Out” too. “Sometimes we would pull back the track and let the crowd bark with it,” Greene said.

The San Francisco Giants used the anthem during their playoff run, as did the New York Mets, for whom the Baha Men later cut a personalized version--"Who Let the Mets Out.” The song has shown up in the NFL, and will soon be rallying crowds at hockey and basketball games, Traube predicts.

With their album holding steady on the charts, the Baha Men are scheduled to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve special, said Greenberg. They will be doing 16 concert dates on the ‘N Sync tour, including a Nov. 26 stop at Staples Center and Nov. 27-28 at the Great Western Forum.

But the real test will come when they try to move beyond the hyper-success of “Who Let the Dogs Out” with their next single, “You All Dat.” Already there are signs that this year’s sports stadium favorite may be losing its bite.

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“We’ll see what the burn factor is on it,” said the Mariners’ Greene. “It did get played a lot this season, and it has been out in the mass media. It might be time to put the dogs back in the kennel and give them a rest, and perhaps bring them out toward the end of next season.”

Rieger, the Maverick executive, said he doesn’t think the song is overexposed or that its broad-based popularity will adversely affect sales of the “Rugrats” album. “You’re just beginning to hear it,” he said. “It’s become part of pop-culture fabric, and it will just keep on going.”


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