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by Rachel Devitt

February 14, 2013

Senior Year, 1998: Who Let the Soca Out?

by Rachel Devitt  |  February 14, 2013

All right, we're going to be honest with you: Yes, that is Baha Men in the picture, and yes, this playlist does indeed include the song "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Wait -- come back! Because Baha Men and their massive international hit are just part of the picture of an important moment in the history of soca music -- and what's more, there's more to that song than just a silly standing pop-cultural joke.

Soca music was born on Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s. Calypso artist Lord Shorty, fearing local music was being overshadowed by the influx of reggae on his island nation, started speeding up the rolling waves of calypso rhythms and fusing them with bits of reggae (and later, dancehall and ragga) along with, most importantly, the music of the Caribbean's community of South Indian descendants. Featuring a driving rhythm section (a typical soca lineup includes drums, bass and synths supporting horns, guitars and steel drums) and lyrics that cajole the listener to "wine" and grind, this hybrid music was designed for dancing. Lord Shorty's experiment was a success: Today, soca is one of the most successful popular musics in the Caribbean and the sound of Carnival in Trinidad.

With a few significant earlier exceptions (especially Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot"), that omnipresence really took hold in the late 1990s and 2000s. Soca artists in this period began collaborating with reggae, dancehall and even R&B stars, adding poppier hooks and focusing their songs even more heavily on wining, grinding, jumping and waving. Meanwhile, U.S. popular culture began using soca as a sort of musical shorthand for island living and tropical settings. Enter Baha Men, whose version of "Who Let the Dogs Out" appeared on several movie soundtracks (Rugrats, anyone?) and trailers, and even won a Grammy Award in 2001. (Yes, really.) Baha Men may have been a London-based (and somewhat impresario-ed) band focused on Bahamian junkanoo music and heavily invested in pop crossover appeal, but "Who Let the Dogs Out" was very much a legit soca hit, recorded in 1998 by Trinidadian artist Anselm Douglas for that year's Carnival season.

The history of that song thus kind of encompasses the status of soca in the late 1990s: On one hand, we had Baha Men doing lightly soca-fied covers of "Kokomo"; dancehall artists like Beenie Man getting in on the international, mainstreaming soca action; and soca stars like Bajan artist Alison Hinds (the "Queen of Soca") and her band Square One incorporating more R&B and pop flavor into their sound. On the other, soca was still very much a proudly Trinidadian/Caribbean/localized art form and culture at the time, with its own constellation of young stars (like Machel Montano and his band Xtatik) and still-strong legends (including Arrow). Even Lord Shorty was still in the game, albeit as a player who, disenchanted with the genre he had created and its de-politicization, was releasing slowed-down, steel-pan-heavy cuts like the anti-drug lecture "Watch Out My Children" (which was still a huge hit).

This playlist focuses on soca's fascinating crossroads around 1997-1999. You may never know -- or care -- who let the dogs out, but we guarantee something here is gonna make you feel like wining those hips, gyal.

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