Rolling Stone considered “Was Dog a Doughnut?” to be one of the few “weaknesses” of Izitso. The album review, from July 1977, took an otherwise positive view of Cat Stevens’ second-to-last album, prior to his conversion to Islam and the subsequent abandonment of his career. Yet Cat Stevens’ least likely and most covert crossover hit was breezily dispatched with the following: “The electronics on (it) are a bit too robot like.”
The review doesn’t even mention Izitso’s opening track and lead single, “(Remember The Days of the) Old Schoolyard.” Starting with the neon jolt of a synthesised symphony orchestra, “(Remember ...” quickly establishes the album’s primary goal: rebooting the persona of the fading folk hero by marrying the lyrical sentimentally of his past, with an appreciation for synth pop’s present.
Yet even in the context of this relatively progressive album “Was Dog A Doughnut?” remains conspicuous. There is no trace of Cat Stevens to be found. It is entirely instrumental, and rides on a rigid, stuttering drum loop. A square wave riff repeats itself across a spectrum of layered frequencies, with parts appearing and vanishing at will. A barking dog provides occasional punctuation. The track’s latter half warms up with humanistic touches, but the artists responsible are no less out of place: the loose-limbed funk of an electric guitar, and the warm, liquid keyboards are the product of guest appearances by master fusionists Ray Gomez and Chick Corea respectively.
Perhaps spurred on by the mid-’70s chart success of synth pop oddities like Hot Buttered’s “Popcorn” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” “Was Dog a Doughnut?” became Izitso’s second (and final) 12-inch release, in November 1977. It fell short of the Top 40 success of “(Remember...,” only reaching #70 on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. However the first hints about the track’s alternate life could be seen in Billboard’s R&B Chart: “Was Dog a Doughnut?” rose to #53 in January, the only track of Cat Stevens’ to ever cross that colour line.
What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world.
Although it’s hidden in plain sight since, the coolly anonymous nature of “Was Dog a Doughnut?” has only fueled its own folklore. Scour the comments of the track’s YouTube audio rips and forum posts, and a particular sentiment is repeated. “I have been looking for this tune for 30 years!” says one, “I used hear it on the radio in South Carolina. An R&B station at that. I have argued for years that this song exists. What a blast to hear!”
Meanwhile, all of the artist’s public references to “Was Dog A Doughnut?” have been rare, or fleeting, presumably unaware of the impact his electro-boogie improvisation had. In an interview with Paste Magazine a few years back, The Roots’ Questlove was asked to name his favourite musical moment with the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon house band, and he cited Islam’s career comeback performance of 2009.
“We talked about an obscure album cut from 1977 called ‘Was Dog a Doughnut?’“ Questlove recalled. “It was really just him creating a filler cut, experimenting with some electronic instruments – he fucked around, man, and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world, which he was very shocked to discover.”
A likely delay to the revelation would be the incorrect crediting of the song: “Was Dog A Doughnut?” had become such a signature track of John “Jellybean” Benitez’ DJ residency at seminal New York club The Funhouse in the early ’80s, that when he released a freestyle remix of it in 1984 under his own name, that association was cemented in the minds of many.
The track’s deliberately skeletal programming naturally lent itself to freestyle, breaking and house stepping dance styles, and its blank-canvas quality allowed its influence to reach further still. Detroit techno innovator DOOM’s pre-solo outfit KMD, Jaylib, DITC and The Fearless Four are just a handful of the artists who have discovered its sample appeal, and it was the first breaking record that Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA remembers buying.counts it as a favourite. It’s been snatched up by hip hop too –
We have a timeless classic here, Moog eruptions and electronic drum programming which arrived five years prior to the Roland 808.
On the Discogs entry for the 12-inch release, rave pioneer Frankie Bones makes an impassioned case for the track’s place in the annals of electronic music. “As history goes, ‘Was Dog A Doughnut?’ is not recognized as one of the most important electronic records ever made,” he writes. “People always give Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’ a name-check for that... On this 1977 release we have the prototype electro track, one that pre-dates Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk and YMO. We have a timeless classic here, Moog eruptions and electronic drum programming which arrived five years prior to the Roland 808.”
In the summer of 1976, as Kraftwerk methodically sharpened their atmospheric robotic pop into the minimalist mechanized rhythms of “Trans Europe Express,” Cat Stevens also busied himself in a studio in Copenhagen. In the space of one day that summer, Stevens, and his two key collaborators – multi-instrumentalists Jean Roussel and Bruce Lynch – joyfully veered off the beaten path of folksy balladeering, with little in the way of context to steer their unexpected results. What they found by accident – a synth effect that sounded like a barking dog, a sequencer that missed a pulse and defined a groove, a wormhole into the future of electronic funk – was the first draft of the blueprint needed for electronic music to come of age.
Bruce Lynch on the making of “Was Dog A Doughnut?”
I had an ARP Sequencer, and it’d had a modification done by Roger Linn, who invented the LinnDrum. The modification was called one-shot, you could put an audio sound into it and it would turn it into a trigger. Click tracks were used more often than not in the film industry, playing in orchestras to film, but sequencing was not big in those days.
So we established that we were going to do a track with all this stuff that we had, just for fun. What I brought to that was the idea of putting that pulse on tape, and it worked. The ARP Sequencer relied on 16 steps and sliders that would do the pitch, and you had a little button that had a gate that triggered a note. We could only have a bar at the start. Of course it could do drums, but on this particular bit the drums were a real kit. Yusuf played the drums to a prepared click track. That was recorded to the 24 track and we mixed it down.
We were just so interested in the way of doing something that was not sitting down with a live band.
We selected a bar of the drums, might have been two bars, made the loop; we took a quarter inch piece of tape and spliced it together and ran it through the deck. We had to keep this tape running for the duration of the song to get it back onto the multi-track, which was in line with this little 16th note pulse that we had.
One of the most significant bits is that sometimes the sequencer would drop a bit of information, or not read the incoming pulse, and there’s one piece where this riff is happening but it dropped a pulse, so it’s actually kind of syncopated. It was not meant to be like that, it was like, “Oh, that sounds really nice.” So it stayed in.
It was a collaborative effort, we were all diving away at buttons, manipulating sliders and voltage control oscillators and filters. We were just so interested in the way of doing something that was not sitting down with a live band. It was almost a little bit self-indulgent.