Northern Exposure

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The Baha Men

You've probably noticed that people have been barking a lot lately. Kids across the U.S. are woofing it up. Sports fans too. David Letterman and his crew are barking on "The Late Show."

Blame it on Baha Men.

Their unavoidable hit is a mix of calypso-inflected insults ("Get back, you flea-infested mongrel!") to a hip-hop-cum-pop beat. But it's the hook that has become an ironic anthem. The singer shouts, "Who let the dogs out?" The reply is a male chorus of "Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof! Woof!"

"Who Let the Dogs Out" (the title of the album as well as the single) has sprinted up the charts and into the Top 10 faster than Marion Jones. A fixture on MTV and Nickelodeon, the tune has excited kids, annoyed parents and scored in the major leagues; it was chanted by thousands of Mets fans when their team clinched the National League championship last week. The song and the group have stoked thoughts of an island-music resurgence to match the influence of Harry Belafonte in the '50s and Bob Marley in the '70s.

Baha Men have been superstars for two decades in their native Bahamas. Marvin Prosper, 24, one of the nine-man band's new lead singers, says being a Baha Man in the Bahamas is like being a Yankee in New York City. They are also platinum-selling favorites in Japan. Their "Back to the Island" is the official song for Bahamas tourism.

Now they have arrived in the U.S., but as every viewer of VH1's Behind the Music knows, the road to stardom has many detours. In 1991 Steve Greenberg, then a talent scout at Atlantic, signed the Men. Two albums sold fewer than 20,000 copies each; when Greenberg left, Atlantic dropped the band. Greenberg rescued them with a deal at his new label, Mercury. "It became a standing joke in the music industry," he says, "that whenever I moved to a new label, the first thing I did was sign Baha Men." But this time out sales were even worse; the group's second and final CD for Mercury sold a humiliating 700 units. When Greenberg resigned last year, Baha Men were adrift again.

Stagnation breeds attrition. Lead singer Nehemiah Hield departed, so the Men added three members under 25. Now they had hunks American teenage girls could swoon over — but still no record deal.

Paging their guardian angel. Greenberg launched his own label, S-Curve, and signed the group as his first act. "I knew that whenever people were exposed to their music, they really liked it," he says. "I was finally in the position to get them the exposure they'd lacked."

He also had a song he wanted them to record. "Dogs," written by Trinidadian musician Anslem Douglas and an island hit two years ago, is a spirited jape about women so disgusted by the antics of the men at a party that they ask, "Who let the dogs out?" Greenberg couldn't get the hook out of his head. He was sure the Men could make it a hit.

When Greenberg presented the idea, group leader Isiah Taylor, 50, rejected it. He thought the song was too Caribbean for the American charts. He was probably right. The original version was a soca (soulful calypso), a horn-heavy, uptempo form that is played at Caribbean carnivals across the U.S. every summer but has never really caught on. When Baha Men finally recorded "Dogs," they explored beats more familiar to American audiences — throwing in some junkanoo (Bahamian festival music) percussion to give it their signature flair. The result is the catchy rendition you've heard so often: urban, with an echo of the islands. The rest of the CD cleverly vamps on this formula, with the Men at their best when they stay true to Caribbean textures on infectious songs like "Getting Hotter" and "You All Dat."

Baha Men have become the standard-bearers for other Caribbean acts, like the Trinidadian band Machel Montano & Xtatic, that hope to invade the American charts. Taylor warns that to succeed in the U.S., they too have to be willing to "refine" their sound. But that's just show business. If island artists can stand a little assimilation, they may find that what started off as a "Woof! Woof!" could grow to a communal commercial roar.