The oral history of the Hampsterdance: The twisted true story of one of the world's first memes | CBC Arts

By Leah Collins · CBC Arts · December 27

It's a chapter of pop-culture history that could only have started in 1998, a time when more people than ever before were making sense of the internet for the first time. And that includes the folks you're about to hear from. (Leah Collins/CBC Arts)

What, exactly, is the Hampsterdance? If you were online around the turn of the millennium, you probably think you know the answer to this question. I did, anyway. And the first, seemingly obvious definition is that it's a website. It's the kind of website you probably haven't seen in a decade, at least — lost to the pixels of time along with stuff like Zombo.com and the emo rants you used to publish on LiveJournal. But it's a website, just the same. One page with one purpose: deliver 392 animated GIFs of dancing rodents and the most infuriating .wav file ever uploaded — a sound that, way back when, threatened to blast out of your speakers every time you checked your email.

It's weird to think about now — weirder than a website devoted to hundreds of cartoon rodents. But 20 years ago, the Hampsterdance was revolutionary, an example of "going viral" before anyone was even using the phrase. Want to make someone LOL? Send them the Hampsterdance. Want to prank your boss? Teacher? Roommate? Get everyone to load the page at the same time. It infiltrated the culture, both online and off, even popping up in a TV ad for Earthlink. And it made its conquest before iPhones, before social media — spreading through email and old-timey word of mouth.  

The original Hamsterdance site. (YouTube)

When you consider all that, it's fair to call it the world's first online meme — or one of the first, depending on your source. And that's the beginning of where things get tricky, because getting a handle on what a meme actually means can be strange business. It's a thing — an image, a video, a concept, a website, some cultural object — that spreads wildly, mutating and evolving as it's passed along.  So when it comes to memes, we're all authors, and we're all the audience. Keep that in mind. It's what makes this whole "Hampsterdance" question difficult. What is it — who made it — if we've all had a paw in there somewhere?

What you're about to read is an oral history of the Hampsterdance, as told by some of the people whose lives were tangled up in its tale.

Yes, the Hampsterdance was a website — one built by Deidre LaCarte, a then 37-year-old martial arts instructor and art student from Nanaimo, B.C.

The Hampsterdance is a song. (Or songs, really.) And that "dedodedo" tune you used to hear on the old website wasn't original. It first appeared in Disney's Robin Hood.

The Hampsterdance is a paycheque — or at least it is to a few characters in this story. And for those who've earned a cut of "Hampster" cash, some are convinced it's nowhere near enough.

And it's also a trademark, one that could've been slapped on a hit TV show and a line of toys, before Angry Birds or Grumpy Cat or even emojis were making box-office bank. (Don't mistake it for Hamtaro or Zhu Zhu Pets, please and thanks.)

What is the Hampsterdance  — who made it — if we've all had a paw in there somewhere?

Sure as there are more oral histories online than you could ever read or retweet, people love nostalgia, and just like the Hampsterdance, this story started as a laugh. It was just supposed to be a quick assignment — a hit of kitschy Y2K memories for anyone who remembered a weird website or a goofy novelty song or even just some gag from Are We There Yet?

But with every person who agreed to be interviewed, the Hampsterdance turned into one more thing: a hairy beast of a saga.

It's the centre of so many schemes and unresolved disputes that its history is more complicated than a super-sized Habitrail. For a website that more or less started as an inside joke, the Hampsterdance became some kind of digital Zelig.

It was there for the dot-com boom. It was a major player in the primordial muck of personal websites that wound up pre-dating social media. It was in the middle of copyright squabbles when the internet was even more of a free-for-all than it is today. It even do-si-do'd with Disney and Hallmark Cards and — if you believe the rumours — Britney Spears and a Gallagher brother. And for the people who had any stake in it at the time, arguments over who was responsible for any of that have festered so long that 10 generations of real-life Hamptons could have come and gone by now.

It's a chapter of pop culture history that could only have started in 1998, a time when more people than ever before were making sense of the internet for the first time. And that includes the folks you're about to hear from.

A web star is born

(Stephen Demuth/CBC)

Why did anyone build a website in 1998? There was no Facebook, no MySpace — not even Friendster. The closest thing to social media was having your own website, and if you didn't have the skills or inclination to do differently, you could sign up with something like Geocities, a free web-hosting service that doubled as a community of personal webpages. Easy to use, the service — and its contemporaries like Angelfire and Tripod — made it simple for countless people (and their Empire Records fansites) to get online in no time, and by June of 1998, Deidre LaCarte had a Geocities account and was copy/pasting the code that would become the Hampsterdance.

Design-wise, the site had plenty of the same busted hallmarks as other pages from the era. Loads of retina-searing animated clip-art, albeit a few hundred more of those GIFs than usual. There was a guestbook where visitors could leave comments, a web counter graphic to log every visit to the page.

But for anyone who doesn't remember losing a weekend translating the unauthorized biography of Leonardo DiCaprio to HTML, posting something online arguably meant something different back then. Now, everything we do has a potential audience. We don't take photos for ourselves, for example — we take them to share them, and unless your privacy settings are on lockdown, we're potentially broadcasting to however many millions of people are on your social platform of choice. But people didn't build Geocities pages thinking that they were going to reach the entire world. They weren't dreaming of retiring early off banner ad revenue, or branding themselves as influencers, spinning Angelfire poetry pages into book deals. If you posted something online, it was probably just meant for your friends.

Deidre was studying art at Malaspina University-College back then (now Vancouver Island University), same as her friend Hazel Steenman, then 44. The two would later marry.

As for the website, it all began as a bit of fun — just a goofy competition.

Deidre LaCarte: The challenge was to see how many people you could get to your website.

Hazel Steenman: That was Deidre's idea because she's highly competitive. (laughs)

Deidre LaCarte: We had until December 31 to get as many people as we could to our sites.

Hazel Steenman: We had a kind of a competition between her sister, me and Deidre.

Deidre LaCarte: My sister, Melanie, had a nice serious music page on Geocities, and Hazel had a nice serious art page. And I had absolutely nothing to do a page on!

I went, "What do I have?" So I just went with my inner child, and I made up a page about my hamster, Hampton.

I'm looking at it and saying, 'Nah, there's something broken.' I just — I kept looking at it, and the numbers kept going up.- Deidre LaCarte

David Cassel, tech journalist: The way I'd tell the origin of the Hampsterdance, as I understood it from Deidre, was that she just kept hitting the insert key. She said, "I don't just want one hamster dance, I want hundreds of them! Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap." And she said, "This is good."

Deidre LaCarte: My younger sister sent me the sound clip. The animated Disney Robin Hood, right at the beginning or right at the end, there's a rooster that sings, and he's singing his song, and if you speed it up, well, it sounds pretty hamster-ish.

The music is more important, I think, than the actual graphical images. It catches. You're hearing a cute little ditty and it makes people happy. So if it wasn't for the music, that website wouldn't have gone [viral].

Hazel Steenman: I had a few followers, and her sister did a music page that went over a little better.

Deidre LaCarte: December 31 I had 800 hits. I'd also bribed and threatened my friends to go to my page and make sure I was the winner. (laughs)

January 1st, at about 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning when I looked at it, I'm looking at it and saying, "Nah, there's something broken." I just — I kept looking at it, and the numbers kept going up.

Hazel Steenman: People were hitting on the webpage. I guess they were sharing it with friends. All the hits just BALLOONED. It was amazing.

Deidre LaCarte: And by the end of January, there was a million people and I'm going, "What the heck is going on?!"

1999: The year of the hampster

Let's just say they had a winner, because when it comes to that surge of Hampsterdance traffic, the exact numbers are different depending which source you check. Back in 1999, some news outlets reported Deidre witnessing an explosion of 30,000 hits in four days; others said it was twice as much. But even if Deidre's web counter was spinning around like a freshly greased hamster wheel, by today's standards, the stats wouldn't come close to breaking the internet.

It raises a couple of points that are peculiar to the era. By 1999, the internet was becoming an ordinary part of everyday life, but hardly everyone was online. You'd find a regular internet user in less than half than Canadian households that year. Still, online culture was familiar enough that the local paper, TV news and even Martha Stewart were actually talking about a silly website that was suddenly the best reason to have an email account. And in a pre-Facebook world, that sort of old school media coverage wound up turning the Hampsterdance into a phenomenon.

Hazel Steenman: Viral wasn't even invented as a word connected to the internet at that point (laughs). And it was just amazing. It was almost unbelievable.

One morning, there was a "bang, bang, bang" on the door, and a guy with a camera on his shoulder, and a big flashing bright light was shining on us when we opened the door — and I just slammed the door as quick as I could. "Deidre, get down here!

They wanted to know what was going on. The same thing that you're asking, I think, only much more intense because the person was right there.

I was just amazed that people would go crazy for something like that. I'm a far more serious person. I don't watch cartoons. (laughs)

It became emblematic of how the web was different from all media that had come before it — you could have a great and grand silliness, and you could share it.- David Cassel

David Cassel: In 1998, what was different about the internet was that amateurs could publish and reach a large audience. We'd never seen that before.

I'm not sure Hampsterdance was the first, but it was one of the first things to go viral, or one of the first silly things to go viral. And I think that became emblematic of how the web was different from all media that had come before it — you could have a great and grand silliness, and you could share it.

Deidre LaCarte: Not everybody had access to the internet or a computer back then, so we were getting 10,000 letters a month [from] some kids and some teachers.

Hazel Steenman: Pretty well as soon as the mail started coming in, I was answering emails, and I think I was posing as a hampster — Hado the girl hampster, and I'm not a girly person. (laughs)

Deidre LaCarte: One email came across my desk [from a father] saying that his daughter is very ill. She was depressed all the time. And he said, Thank you very much for the Hampsterdance because when she plays it she's happy." Whatever happens, that was the happiest moment of my life. That helped. I clicked with somebody and it made somebody happy.

That was the whole idea behind this. It's fun and it's happy. There's no violence, there's no swearing, there's nobody getting beat up or hurt — although some people took our site, directly copied the whole thing and then made it shoot the hamsters and kill the hamsters. That wasn't what it was for!

All your hampsters are belong to us

By the middle of 1999, the Hampsterdance was internet famous — a bona fide meme. Spoof sites were proliferating like IRL rodents, and it was being remixed, copied and parodied, becoming one more ingredient in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is online culture.

Like Deidre said, sometimes things took an R-rated turn. One of the most viral parodies would probably be Joe Cartoon's "Gerbil in a Microwave," an interactive flash cartoon that let viewers nuke a dancing rodent by clicking the screen. (According to the Guardian, roughly 10 million people emailed the link between June and November of 1999.) But that was more sophisticated than most of the spoofs and tributes. Copycat sites were way more common, and Deidre's clip-art hampsters were substituted with just about anything you can GIF.

A 1999 article about "Hamsterdance Fever" [sic] includes a list of some of the more creative examples: dancing cheeseburgers, AOL CDs, Dick Van Dyke. David Cassel wrote that story for www.gettingit.com. Still covering tech in the Bay Area, he reported on the Hampsterdance for a variety of outlets while the meme was in its heyday.

David Cassel: There is a message there about the internet in 1998, and to this day, for that matter. We always joke that the internet is cute animal pictures. But in 1998, funny animals and things like that? It was the very first time anyone had sort of tapped the potential of that, I think.

Yeah, there were dozens of [copycat sites]. We had a category for them, dancing animals. I think people just wanted to join in on the fun. I mean, why do people leave comments on Reddit? It's one thing that hasn't changed in 20 years. We all want people to notice us and like us and everyone wants to be the next Hampsterdance. It was fun to make a site. Heck, I made one once.

This is like 15 minutes of fame and you have no idea what to do.- Deidre LaCarte

Deidre LaCarte: The god dance, the frog dance, the mafia dance. You name it, there was a dance for it. Everything, everybody — they just copied it, pasted it, put in their own images and did it to our song.

David Cassell: I think she had a Hampster Hall of Shame for people who were going against the spirit of the Hampsterdance by having sort of adult versions when she thought the Hampsterdance should be for children.

There's a blog post from Deidre where she mentions the situation. As she wrote back then: "One person even put porn banners on the page. YUCK."

Deidre LaCarte: [We sent] cease and desist kind of things, but we didn't have money to fight all of these people.

(deep breath) One of the biggest things is I had this site on Geocities. OK? It was a free site. I didn't think about advertising or anything else. So a gentleman, I can't even remember his name now, down in Chicago — he took the site, copied the whole thing, got hampsterdance.com.

Jeffery Lane (former business partner, Hampton Hampster Productions): Hoo boy. I got my counsel involved. [The guy who purchased the domain] his name was George Vuckovic. Yeah, how.

David Cassell: She had the Geocities page, but who owned that domain, hampsterdance.com? It was the one people typed into their browser.

Deidre LaCarte: Because I was on Geocities, I didn't know you could do other stuff. He actually bought the hampsterdance.com, put my site on his, called it his, took all the revenue — because they were doing a lot of advertising on the Hampsterdance, like major amounts.

David Cassel: I think he's the unsung hero in all this. Well, I dunno. I mean, there's many phases in this. I wasn't quite clear if he was a good guy or a bad guy.

I just mean he was the one who made sure the Hampsterdance WAS on the web. If George hadn't been there, people might not have been able to see it. You would go to the [original] site and you would get a request timeout.  

Before we move on, a quick explainer: free web hosts like Geocities had restrictions on bandwidth. A site with a metric buttload of traffic, such as the Hampsterdance, would need a metric buttload of bandwidth. So yeah, those twitchy rodents didn't always appear. Deidre even acknowledged the problem in the "Technical Information" section of her old website. 

David Cassel: There were hundreds of hampsters. Each one had to be downloaded separately. And then the sound file — every time you pulled the webpage you had to download the entirety of the sound file. That was a lot of file space, a lot of data coming across the wire, whenever somebody wanted to see the Hampsterdance page. And there were thousands and thousands, millions and millions of them.

You can spell hamster with a p or without a p. And hamsters have a lot of pee, so I thought it was funny.- Deidre LaCarte

You're talking about the Hampsterdance and what is the Hampsterdance? It's image files. And where are those files? They're on George's machine.

And he kept on making sure that people could see them. And it was very expensive and it took a lot of work.

He said it almost put him out of business, the Hampsterdance.

George Vuckovic is still the CEO and President of Tilted Planet, the same tech company that hosted www.hampsterdance.com nearly 20 years ago. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Deidre LaCarte: I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what to do. I mean, this is like 15 minutes of fame and you have no idea what to do. So we did acquire a partner — ahem — in this. Reluctantly, but he was also responsible for bringing The Boomtang Boys on board.

What's a hampster to do (si do)?

That partner? That's Jeffery Lane. He's the founder of something called Big Fun Media — a company name that repeatedly pops up in Hampsterdance press from back in the day, though the Hampsterdance was its first and only client.

Jeffery was 38 when he hitched up with Hampton et al. Living in Toronto, he was working on film sets as a chef, and dreaming of a different career in the entertainment industry. When he heard about the Hampsterdance, he thought he'd found the ticket.

According to Jeffery, he didn't discover the website until the middle of 1999. Like Deidre and Hazel, he'd also gone to Malaspina, and in a twist about as random as the Hampsterdance itself, he says he found out about the craze through the school's alumni newsletter. They wouldn't meet until that fall.

Jeffery Lane: I wanted to meet the girls and talk to them about what they saw Hampsterdance being. I wanted to meet them; I wanted to know them; I wanted to find out what their thoughts and ambitions for this thing were.

Deidre LaCarte: He said he had lots of ideas to promote the site.

Jeffery Lane: The odd name with this interesting sample from a Disney film kind of struck me as interesting.

OK, that's a hook. What can I do with that? Who can I involve? And where can we go beyond that? And really, I didn't have a clue off the top other than we can do something with this.

We did acquire a partner — ahem — in this. Reluctantly, but he was also responsible for bringing The Boomtang Boys on board.- Deidre LaCarte

Hazel Steenman: Before New Year's, he got in touch with us.

Jeffery Lane: We met in October. October '99.

I want to be careful here. This is where we cross into grey areas of matters that are still legalities to me, even to this day, if you catch my drift.

My take on it was that to do something more, we would have to involve more people. We would need more creativity. We would need some professional people because they didn't have the background and they really weren't that net-savvy as far as being able to build, develop, et cetera, et cetera. And they certainly didn't have any background in the area of music.

Hazel Steenman: We didn't hear from him for a while until it really went nuts, and then he turned up again and he sort of edged his way in.

Deidre LaCarte: It was February or March that Jeff came to see us. And he had gone to the Boomtang Boys, and they recorded, without our knowledge, "The Hampsterdance Song."

He told us about the Boomtang Boys doing this, and he told us this whole thing — "If they're going to sign on and do this, I need to be a partner."

Hazel Steenman: But we needed him at the time, and we didn't know that. So, it worked out well.

Jeffery James Lane: They were informed as the new production took shape and were given input. I'll leave it there.

Deidre LaCarte: We formed a company, Hampton Hampster Productions, with Jeff, Hazel and myself.

We got the name copyrighted because you can spell hamster with a p or without a p. And hamsters have a lot of pee, so I thought it was funny.

Hampsterdance vs. Cuban Boys

(Stephen Demuth/CBC)

That Boomtang Boys track, "The Hampsterdance Song," arrived in June 2000, and love it or loathe it, it's the recording you probably remember. A No. 1 hit on the Canadian singles chart, the animated video was all over MuchMusic by the summer, ultimately voted Cheesiest Video of the Year on Ed the Sock's "F2K" Fromage special.

It's the official single, but it's not the first, and that fact adds a few snarls to this story. So before we press on, we need to take a detour to December 1999.

Another track riffing off the same "dedodedo" .wav file was competing for No. 1 on the UK holiday chart — the most British of British pop honours, or at least that's what I learned from Love Actually — and it was recorded by The Cuban Boys, a bedroom band the NME once (awesomely) described as "satanic Aqua."

Jeffery Lane: I almost want you to turn the recorder off when you use the word "Cuban Boys."

Deidre LaCarte: How did I first learn about their song?! (laughs) It was seven o'clock in the morning, OK? I'm in my housecoat. Knock on the door, open it up and here's this camera with a big light on it and a microphone shoved in my mouth. This is CTV News or CBC, some news company going, "How do you feel about your song — part of your song! being up for the song of the millennium?"

What?!

So I said, "Be right back, have to talk to somebody."

I went and talked to my lawyer.

In Britain, one of the musical prizes of the year is having the top-selling song in the week leading up to Christmas. In this clip from the Dec. 17, 1999 broadcast of CBC News: The National, reporter Ann MacMillan is in London, where "Cognoscenti vs. Intelligentsia" by the Cuban Boys is one of the contenders for No. 1. 0:47

Jeffery Lane: It was a great hook and they decided to steal it directly. And the Cuban Boys turned it into — "Cog"? What's the name of the song? "Cog"?

Rob DeBoer, The Boomtang Boys: What was it?

Tony Grace and Rob DeBoer, The Boomtang Boys: "Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia!!!"

Ricardo Autobahn, The Cuban Boys: It was a joke title.

If we ever got on the charts, it would just look funny written down in places, and it would be funny having people mispronounce it. The joke wore thin very quickly.

A little "net-savvier" than the average Y2K-era pop outfit, The Cuban Boys already had experience making music that tapped into the internet's bent sense of humour. The year prior, they'd made it on John Peel's BBC radio show by sampling the South Park catchphrase, "Oh my God, they killed Kenny." But because this was still 20 years ago, band member Ricardo Autobahn, a.k.a. John Matthews, says he found out about the Hampsterdance in a newspaper. That discovery, in February of 1999, led to a hit single, a major-label record deal and big hairy ball of drama (though not necessarily for him).

Ricardo Autobahn: The Hampsterdance website, in a sense, was exactly the sort of thing we'd steal and put a disco beat behind and make a weird dance record out of.

The hamsters were sort of irrelevant to us. It was that strange noise that we heard.

We did the song almost immediately. We did a little demo back in February and we used to send our tapes or CDs off to John Peel. Are you aware of John Peel?

Jeffery Lane: John Peel was one of those guys who just liked odd subject matter and he decided to spin up their demo. Well, the second he did that, the phones lit up.

Ricardo Autobahn: We didn't expect him to play it. It was one of those things we sent to see if it was any good or not, and he put it on the air and it got an AMAZING response from the listeners because people recognized it, but they weren't exactly sure why they recognized it.

That initial rush of finding the site and getting a record deal — it was the most exciting thing, really.

Hampton Hampster: The other Gallagher brother

The band did what they could to keep the hampster-ball rolling. "C vs. I" was their most popular track yet, though they'd built hype before, pulling off stunts that could only happen in the U.K. at the turn of the millennium. Underground and more or less anonymous, The Cuban Boys could be anyone, even the secret side project of Britpop's biggest stars. The music press ran with it.

Ricardo Autobahn: We looked up an Oasis website. We changed a headline on the news page — we downloaded it, changed the HTML code to say "Noel Gallagher's made a dance record," uploaded it to our own site. And you send it out to people, and people back then were so naïve about this stuff that they read it and believed it. This preposterous idea that Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, the most miserable men in pop, had made this chirpy disco record — again, it amused us and captured the imagination of people, I think. It got us a weird amount of traction! I think Noel went on on MTV to deny his involvement in it whatsoever, so we caused a lot of bother with our little effort.

According to a BBC story from the time, Peel's audience hadn't reacted like this since the '70s — when he spun The Sex Pistols's "God Save the Queen" and blasted punk rock into the virgin ears of Britannia. Somewhat different historical significance there, but still. With the public loving it, "C vs. I" was all over the radio that spring. By May, Ricardo says the Cuban Boys had signed a record deal with EMI — but the official single wasn't out until December, just in time for that "song of the Millennium" chart race.

Jeffery Lane: "C vs. I" came out right after we had sat down and discussed moving ahead and moving ahead with something musical, et cetera et cetera.

Jeffery would seem to be talking about the official Cuban Boys single, in case the timeline's got you dizzy. "C vs. I" had been on the airwaves since spring of 1999. Technically, the Canadians' music project didn't materialize until months later.

Jeffery Lane: At that point — by Christmas of '99 — I had already involved Rob and Tony of the Boomtang Boys, and there had been discussion.

Hazel Steenman: I think the Cuban Boys were before Jeff, before [our] records. Because then I think we realized, "Oh! People will actually pay to have a record if they wanted one."

[Deidre] claimed to be living in poverty whilst we were living it up in the South of France with our millions of pounds. Which was horribly incorrect.- Ricardo Autobahn

Ricardo Autobahn: I do remember — they thought we were cashing in on their idea, if you see what I mean, which we weren't because we never really referenced hamsters. We put a sticker on the sleeves so people knew it was the Hampsterdance song.

Jeffery Lane: "Bow down to the altar of the Hampsterdance."

"Worship at the altar of the Hamster Dance song!" (eBay)

Ricardo Autobahn: And I think that was possibly a mistake because that meant we were referencing the Hampsterdance.

I think they were just trying to get as much cash as quickly as possible while the site was still hot, really. That's a cynical way of looking at it, but I think that's probably what it was. They were just probably having a go at us.

I remember the woman behind it was Deidre LaCarte, wasn't it? Months after, suddenly this article popped up out of nowhere in the British press and it said, "Cuban Boys stole my Hampsters!" And she claimed to be living in poverty whilst we were living it up in the South of France with our millions of pounds. Which was horribly incorrect. But they found this picture of her looking really smug to go along with the article which I thought was very funny, and I kept the article for years and was proud to show it to people. (laughs)

A very Hampster hit

(Stephen Demuth/CBC)

Jeffery Lane: There's no question that once that went down, for me — for Big Fun and our little group — that just told us exactly what I suspected.

That's a hook. It's a fabulous hook, and we can take that hook and really do something with it.

Rob DeBoer, The Boomtang Boys: We had been sort of go-to dance/remix producers for a few years here in Canada, so the publicist [Jeffery Lane] was well aware of us and he contacted us.

Jeffery Lane: I didn't know them directly, but I knew of some of their work.

Rob DeBoer: So their concept was, "Let's shut the Cuban Boys down. And let's hire somebody to do an officially sanctioned and properly licensed song using this thing, and take it to the next level."

We looked this thing up and...what the hell? It's like a dancing — I dunno? We didn't understand it, but we had a feeling that there was something big going on here.

We thought it would be at least good for a laugh. But at most, we could make some money off it.- Rob DeBoer , The Boomtang Boys

Jeffery Lane: I was so happy that they got the joke because what I was pitching — I had already been told so many times — quote — "You're fucking nuts."

Rob DeBoer: There's a long history of novelty songs that do crazy business and then disappear. So you know, we thought it would be at least good for a laugh. But at most, we could make some money off it.

Tony Grace, The Boomtang Boys: Yeah, you have to think of the time. Aqua's happening. Vengaboys. Prozzak's coming out with their stuff — that was a Canadian thing.

Rob DeBoer: I remember when "Squeeze Toy" came out in 1999. I don't want to speak for both of us, but I was a little bit nervous. "Oh man, we're putting out this over-the-top cheesy record," and then it became this hit!  

Jeffery Lane: At this point, everything was being done on spec by my company. I did — wow. I did an enormous amount of spec work in creating this thing for the better part of almost half a year.

Rob DeBoer: The vocals on "The Hampsterdance Song" are — it's me singing the melody and the rap verses are Tony. (laughs)

Tony Grace: Thank you very much! (Tony puts on a country twang) "Come on everybody and here we go!" I did a country-esque, hoedown-y kind of rap.

Jeffery Lane: Disney was a challenge as Disney didn't want the Roger Miller original from the film — they didn't want it sampled and double timed to create that which was already being used.

Rob DeBoer: Well, the first thing we did is we got around the issue of having to clear a sample by re-recording it. The voice on the record is actually me singing. I basically re-sang it the way Roger Miller did. Slow, lower key and pitched it up — classic Chipmunk style.

Decisions like that are how The Boomtangs made the gig worth it. They knew recording a cover was cheaper than paying to sample Roger Miller's Robin Hood tune, and they say that they were able to secure a publishing split by writing some new material for "The Hampsterdance Song" — a few verses, some instrumental sections. It doesn't seem like much, but it's pivotal. Unlike everything to do with the internet, at least the music industry was a known entity back then, and The Boomtangs knew how to navigate it.

Jeffery Lane: From first meeting to a first initial demo listening was probably less than three weeks.

Once we had finished production on the single, Rob, Tony and I literally had a weird sort of lightbulb moment in the studio. We played the final mix, and we turned it up really loud in the studio so it was club volume. And it stopped, and we all looked at each other, and nobody said anything because we literally knew right there — we had a hit record.

Deidre LaCarte: The song was good. It was OK. There's not a lot to it. They just kind of zapped out 32 notes and expanded on it.

Hazel Steenman: I liked it. It was OK. I like classical music (laughs). This is so far from classical.

Tony Grace: I think people who want to look for anything else in that song have got to give their heads a shake and understand this is the entertainment business. You're taking yourself way too seriously.

Deidre LaCarte: It's like the "Small World" Disney song. I'll kill people who play that! But it is a cute song. You can dance to it and it's kid friendly.

The summer of 2000 "The Hampsterdance Song" was a hit, going No. 1 in Canada, and an entire album of high-pitched critter pop was in stores by that October, executive produced by the Boomtangs and released by Koch Records under the nom de cartoon: Hampton The Hampster. The record generated a couple more hits in Australia, a cover of John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" and an original, "Hampster Party" — a song the Onion A.V. Club dubbed "the definitive hamster party anthem of the new millennium."

David Cassel: "Hampster Party." You've got to hear that one song — it's really not a bad song. I've been accused of having bad taste in music, but of all the Hampster songs, that one really rocks!

The Hampsters take Manhattan

At this point in the timeline, a whole new issue is getting twisted. What is the Hampsterdance? That's still part of the problem, but the bigger question is more about who owns the thing.

Now that Hampton and the Hampsters had themselves a hit record, the Hampsterdance had mutated into something beyond the original meme, and its stakeholders were convinced that it could keep on conquering the offline world. Could the Hampsters earn their kibble, and then some, if they hooked up with the right partners? But what, exactly, would they be selling?

The same month that "The Hampsterdance Song" debuted, Deidre says she was road tripping to NYC with Hazel. (If you can Hampsterdance there, you can make it anywhere, right?) They'd been selling Hampster merch through an online "Hampstore," though if there were any profits, Deidre says she never saw any. And they were going to meet up with some business contacts at an annual industry toy fair, including an American company, Refac Licensing Inc., who had been working on their behalf.

Deidre LaCarte: [It's] a big toy fair for what they're going to sell at Christmastime. So, every toy known. And they were doing promotions on products based on the Hampsterdance. Little toys, fuzzy little toys that did the Hampster thing. This is way before — like, there was a glut on the market of all these dancing things.

The week before my 38th birthday, we, as a company, leased a 2000 Volkswagen Beetle — a limited edition marigold-coloured Volkswagen, OK? And then I put decals on it with the Hampsterdance on the back and Hampton Hampster on the side, and a little bowtie on the front.

Hazel (right) with Deidre's Hampsterdance VW bug. (Courtesy of Deidre Lacarte)

Hazel Steenman: A big, yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Oh dear. (laughs) The cartoon art that was put on the back of the car was done here in Nanaimo, too.

Deidre LaCarte: Then we drove to New York City, the only coloured car in the whole city. Everything is black.

Hampton Hamster was driving around town and it was awesome. And people honked. They'd ask us about it, and we'd have little stuffed toy hampsters on the dash and it was awesome. (laughs) And people came to say hi and they smiled! It was always a smile. There was never anything down about it. It was up!

'We can make money making singing and dancing hamsters'

(Stephen Demuth/CBC )

Deidre's former contact at Refac told CBC Arts that the Hampsterdance failed to line up any deals at the fair, but the trip wasn't exactly a bust. The company that stocked a booth with toy Hampsters? It's called Abatis International. Bill Porfido was its president, and according to Bill, the company was in the business of chasing the next big thing. Say three-wick candles are popular (an actual Abatis item). The company would hire an overseas company to make a bunch, then they'd slap a new label on the merchandise and sell it through big North American retailers. According to Bill, the next time he saw Deirdre, he bought the Hampsterdance.

Not www.hampsterdance.com (someone else was apparently still sitting on the domain) and not the character designs, either. The site's infamous dancing animals were all just clip art. As for the music, the recordings weren't even on the table. But a deal's a life-changing deal.

Tony Grace: They sold their website to this guy down in New York. I went down to see him. You could make a whole movie about this, I tell you. Al Pacino could play the guy down in New York. I can see him now!

Bill Porfido, Abatis: I wasn't a computer guy at the time, 1998 to 1999, but my partner had graduated in computer science.

He said, "Bill, you gotta get a computer. I'm gonna show you how to use it; you've gotta get online." So we did. He set me up a computer in my office and he said, by the way, the first thing I'm going to send you is the hamsters.

Who knows? Maybe we can make another Alvin and the Chipmunks.- Bill Porfido

So he sent me the Hampsterdance and I was hysterical. So I got a computer at my house! And my daughter was about 12 at the time, and said, "Hey, Dad. You sent me those hamsters. How come you don't make singing and dancing hamsters as toys? Because you know a load of toy manufacturers. And sell that to everybody."

And I said, "That's brilliant."

We were always looking for that next big venture, if you know what I'm saying. We were entrepreneurs, never stuck into one genre of anything. I know that if the song is popping, we can make money making singing and dancing hamsters. That's it.

The particulars of how everyone comes together are fuzzier than a hamster's rear end. Jeffery says he brought Abatis to the table because he'd worked for them as a chef. Bill says he came in through Deidre — and Jeffery worked for Abatis later. (His company has a license for Iron Chef — yes, like the Japanese cooking show.) And Deidre says Refac introduced everyone to Bill.

To make things even more convoluted, Bill says he did not work with a licensing agent from Refac, nor does Deidre's former licensing agent recall working with Abatis. But both Bill and Deidre agree that Abatis was the company who stocked their Hampsterdance booth at the toy fair.

And I'm only mentioning any of this because an unnamed, mystery licensing agent gets pegged as the catalyst for what comes next.

Bill says Deidre and Jeffery gave him the go-ahead to start manufacturing those "singing and dancing hampsters," but there was never consensus on what the things should actually look like.

Bill Porfido: What happened is, every time they sent me a drawing, I'd create a toy in China to have as a sample, and they'd say, "Well Bill, Hampton has three dots down his back." And I said, "But you didn't show me his back!" (laughs)

And we're going back and forth — and by the way, I have all the samples.

People who are young and come up with something like this have emotional attachment, OK. And I always appreciate that, their passion. But you still have to get things done.

We were basically paying them for nothing, to tell you the truth.- Bill Porfido

And so I went to the licensing agent and said, "Listen, everybody's driving me crazy. I mean, I've got a toy show coming up."

So the licensing agent says, "Bill, listen to me. I don't think these people have ever been in business before. I don't think they know what to do with the Hampsterdance. I've got a suggestion. Why don't you buy it from them?" There's people going to the website. Who knows? Maybe we can make another Alvin and the Chipmunks.

So through her, we make the deal to buy the website, everything lock stock and barrel, plus acquire rights from Koch Records and Boomtown Boys (sic) to use the Hampsterdance for what we need it for.

Deidre LaCarte: It sounded really good and they wanted to actually buy our company.

Bill Porfido: Here's what's included in the deal: their website, their domain name.

Again, that domain's not even www.hampsterdance.com. Because of the whole url-squatter situation, the Canadian Hampster folks had registered another address: the mildly embarrassing www.hampsterdance2.com.

Bill Porfido: We were basically paying them for nothing, to tell you the truth. The value back then for websites and stuff was astronomical for nothing. I just didn't want to have any problems going down the road.

David Cassel: How did you make money on the web? How do you make money with a website? Monetization models hadn't emerged, if you want to put a name to it.

Bill Porfido: No one knew what to do with the website. No one. Everyone was shoving money into the internet with no return. I thought it was insane! I didn't want a website!

Everyone was shoving money into the internet with no return. I thought it was insane! I didn't want a website!- Bill Porfido

David Cassel: I would go out on a limb and venture to say that almost nobody had figured out how to make money on the internet in 1998.

Bill Porfido: We gave them $250,000 and a three per cent interest in whatever business the hampsters generate. So if I sold the toys, three per cent. If I get a TV show, three per cent. Whatever it was, they were going to get three per cent. It wasn't just 250.

Deidre LaCarte: So this is all good, we're going to sell this.

Jeffery Lane: They had made some sort of deal through this agent that they wanted to sell the property. I did not have a voting share in that discussion and as such, it was an easy decision for the American company to make, and an easier one for the west coasters to implement.

Bill Porfido: [The money was split] between Jeffery Lane, Deidre and her partner. That's what I understood it.

Jeffery Lane: I'm not trying to disrespect those guys [Bill and Brian] in any way shape or form here, let's be clear on that. (laughs) It just worked out that — it was clear that the relationship here and the property were going to fall apart.

'It wasn't even clear what the characters were'

The Brooklyn Bridge might as well have been thrown in as part of the deal. Because again, what is the Hampsterdance? Deidre had put together the pieces of the original website, but when you take it apart — and extract the "dedodedo" — what had Abatis bought? Since the first copycat websites popped up, people online had been arguing about who could lay claim to what. But all that was largely philosophical chatter about the freedom of the internet. Now that money and ego were involved, the question was part of a different, charged debate.

David Cassel: Yeah, everyone wants to lay claim to their role in the Hampsterdance. Somebody says, "I made the sound file." Deidre LaCarte just took it and put it behind her hamster. And somebody else'll say, "She didn't make the dancing hamsters, either. She found them on the web. She's the one who put the dancing hamsters together with the sound clip and put them all together."

Rob DeBoer: We always thought that they'd paid a lot of money for kind of a questionable property. They don't have the music, which is what everyone wanted to hear, and it wasn't even clear what the characters were that they had.

Everyone wants to lay claim to their role in the Hampsterdance .- David Cassel

Deidre LaCarte: Well, Hampton is the original Hampster. Hado is what we call Hazel's Hampster. And Jeff Lane suggested Fuzzy and Dixie.

Those character names pop up in the first music video. Back on the old Geocities site, if you let your mouse over over any given critter, you could reveal names for dozens of other little dudes: Tink, Piggie, Snowball, Jonan the Barbarian...

Rob DeBoer: The visuals that were on the website were just clip art, animated clip art. (laughs) The whole legality of that was kind of questionable.

I believe it was the publicist's wife who came up with what you actually see on the Hampsterdance album.

Tony Grace: Mel was her name.

Jeffery Lane: She's my partner. On a business level she's Melanie Anne. And her business is Melanie Anne Designs.

So we decided to draw up 2D characters. They were storyboarded and Melanie Anne, she took the ideas that I had for four characters, and the four characters, literally, to be cliché, was sort of an homage to the Beatles. (laughs)

I would really like to thank the true creative genius behind this, and that's Melanie Anne Lane. Her art is the genius that turned these characters into the global phenomenon that they still are.

Deidre LaCarte: She did a small, teeny tiny ink drawing of one of the characters, OK? So when we sold the company, she sued us for three quarters of a million dollars, or half a million dollars, because she drew this little thing in relation to Hampton.

We did get a lawyer in Nanaimo and he said just give her 25 per cent or whatever you got from the merchandise and all that other stuff — it'll be worth it in the end.

So she sued us. We settled.

More hampsters, more problems

Whatever a Hampster is, it's not a cash cow. At least it wasn't for Bill. As of writing, if you visit www.hampsterdance.com you'll land in a digital graveyard, but one that's stuck in 2008, not 1998. After making the deal, Bill says he hustled for nearly a decade, which is a whole other nostalgia saga: "How one man sunk a million trying to turn the world's most annoying website into the biggest thing in kiddie entertainment."

With a little bit of legal muscle, he says he got the hampsterdance.com domain back, and his gambit seemed promising at first. Nelvana, the Canadian animation company, pursued a cartoon series about a world-travelling "Hampster" band. There was opportunity for a toy deal, too, and according to Bill, the studio was interested in featuring more original music, so he tapped his cousin, Joseph Baldassare (a.k.a. Joey Balin) — a guy whose C.V. includes songwriting for German metal acts (plus The Smurfs, according to Bill). And they signed a deal with Sony.

Bill Porfido: During that time, though — so you understand — "Hampsterdance" was No. 1 on Disney Radio.

So, what happened was, after we did the album, I went to Disney and they put "Sing a Simple Song" on Disney Radio. And that was our song now, and guess what? It was the song of the month, No. 1 song.

One song — "Life is Good, Life is Great" — Britney Spears wanted that from my cousin. He wouldn't give it to her! You hear that song and it's world class.

The cartoon series never materialized, though. Bill says it fizzled when Corus bought Nelvana, and the entire time the studio had been pushing forward with development, he was waiting for his lawyers to negotiate the deal. That is to say, an agreement was never signed. He pitched the Hampsters to more studios (including Disney and Sony), and when they passed, he decided to make it himself. Hiring an animation studio from New Jersey, Abatis produced a straight-to-DVD remake of Holiday Inn, that old Christmas musical starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. In this case, the leads were fuzzy, CGI humanoids — a.k.a. Hampton and the Hampsters. It's so obscure, the project's not even listed on IMDB. (iO9 once joked that nobody's ever actually seen it.) According to Bill, roughly 2,000 copies were sold.

Bill Porfido: It was...not world class.

I said, "How long am I going to do this?"

A million. One million dollars. It's almost a million, what we lost. I'm taking out what we got in return.

Bill says he hasn't touched the website since 2008, when he transferred it to Brian Hoffman, his old business partner (though Bill still technically owns it). Brian would not respond to requests for comment.

Bill Porfido: Brian does not have any plans for it. I haven't spoken to Brian in about three years, but I know he's tired of it.

But you know, we keep hoping that somebody somewhere along the line says, "Whatever happened to those hamsters?!"

That's just fantasy thinking, you know what I'm saying.

One million dollars. It's almost a million, what we lost.- Bill Porfido

Deidre LaCarte: Besides that first initial amount off that website merchandise, the music that they put up, anything — we have received nothing but $4.36.

But the music on the other hand, we still retain. Hampton Hampster, anything done by the Boomtang Boys, is ours. That's actually making money.

Deidre, Hazel, Jeffery, the Boomtang Boys, the record companies: whenever the song's licensed, they all get a cut. It's popped up in movies (See Spot Run), TV (Family Guy). The thing was even Hannah Montana's ringtone.

Tony Grace: We have a little hamster god here we give praises to every day. We give gifts to it. (laughs)

Jeffery Lane: Hallmark Cards has been — we love Hallmark. (laughs) I can tell you that! We love Hallmark in a really big way. We have no idea why they embraced us.

If you're a musician out there, don't say no to stuff like this. Don't EVER say no to novelty music.- Tony Grace, The Boomtang Boys

Tony Grace: The song, it's 20 years on and it's now — you should contact Hallmark and find out, but it's got to be one of the top-selling birthday cards or greeting cards.

Hallmark started licensing "The Hampsterdance Song" in 2006 for cards and novelty gifts, and while their rep wouldn't comment on sales figures, or whether it's featured in any all-time best sellers, they did say this: the tune's been used in an estimated 100 different products. Five cards are currently available in Canada, if you'd care to torture a friend or loved one.

Tony Grace: I think we did better with the cards than with the record.

Actually, we're waiting on another clearance from Family Guy, for an upcoming episode.

Rob DeBoer: The Hampsterdance really did keep the lights on for various stretches over the years.

Tony Grace: It really helped us. If you're a musician out there, don't say no to stuff like this. Don't EVER say no to novelty music.

Where are they now?

(Stephen Demuth/CBC)

Still making music together, the Boomtang Boys actually revisited the hit in 2013 with a remix "Hamster Dance 2.0." (Note the sans-p spelling.)

Weirdly enough, so did the Cuban Boys. "Hamsterdance 2013" arrived in, well, 2013, and Ricardo Autobahn's current band, Spray (which features another ex Cuban Boy, his sister Jenny McLaren), just released "The Ballad of Xmas '99." The jokey track could double as their chapter of this story — at least the bit about battling for the top of the Christmas chart. Cliff Richard's "Millennium Prayer" ultimately seized the No. 1 spot that year, leaving their "rodent pop" in the dust, and as Jenny sings (with tongue in cheek): "Learn from our lives of bitterness and pain."

Bill's retired, but if anyone wants to buy the Hampsterdance off of him, he's open for business.

Bill Porfido: Every day I say, "Somebody's going to come and offer me something for Hampton and the Hampsters."

And the truth is, even though it was a money sponge, I enjoyed every minute of it.

People are like, "Hampsterdance? That's you? That's you?!" It kind of gave you a little taste of fame even though it was — bogus. (Laughs) It's just a journey, and it was a journey that you could talk about!"

It's just that not everyone's clear on whose story this is.

Last time I ask this — honest. What is the Hampsterdance? If you just forgot the answer somewhere in the last 20 years, you'd be totally forgiven. Before getting sucked into this epic, when was the last time you saw it? The website, the songs — that's all nostalgia. It's all in the past, archived with everything that was ever on Geocities. You might not know what it's called, or where it came from. The Hampsterdance arguably doesn't even go by that name anymore. It's a gag from some Disney show your kid sister used to watch; it's a twinge of déjà vu when you see "party-rocking" rodents in a Kia ad. It belongs to no one, and everyone, just another throwaway reference that you might or might not trace back to your first memories of the internet, when hamsters were 2D animated GIFs, and not Instagram influencers.

Not everyone's going to agree.

Jeffery, for instance, looks forward to 2020, the date of the Hampsterdance's "real" 20th anniversary.

Jeffery Lane: I had a concept of an idea that was partially started by somebody else. I absolutely give them credit for the name and the idea of Hampsterdance as a concept — there's no question about that. CNet called it the internet's largest fad in net history. I think that's really flattering, and I'm really happy about that because it says that the people that I put together — the group of artists that turned this thing into the global insanity that it literally became and still is. It still has hundreds of millions of fans.

As for Deidre, she wants the record to show that if there's such a thing as the mother of all Hampsters, it was her.

Deidre LaCarte: There's mention of it [the Hampsterdance], but there's not a lot of mention of me.

I live in a small city on Vancouver Island. We're not really famous kind of people. But I'm very glad I had my 15 minutes to make somebody happy.

David Cassel: People always gnash their teeth about how a site so silly could become so incredibly popular. And it's kind of inspiring that a woman like Deidre LaCarte who just, you know — she's not Mark Zuckerberg, but she slapped together a humble website that found a vast audience without a lot of skills.

There's mention of it [the Hampsterdance ], but there's not a lot of mention of me.- Deidre LaCarte

It became emblematic of how crazy the web was. It was a silly website. It was also just that much more wonderful that it became wildly popular and maybe you could say it's one of the internet's first great success stories. Not about money, necessarily, but certainly about fame.

And Deidre, who recently earned an IT diploma, isn't done with the Hampsterdance, yet.

Deidre LaCarte: It's private information and it's copyrighted, but I have other sites available that I want to make and put up on the internet. It's time for another one. 20th anniversary!

David Cassel: (laughs) When we finally get virtual reality goggles, virtual reality headsets, I would love to see a three-dimensional Hampsterdance as a nod to where we came from.

Everyone has a warm place in their hearts for the Hampsterdance — not just because it was silly and then wildly popular, but because it reminds us of when we were young and when the web was young.

Deidre LaCarte: Its legacy is awesome. It's shown people that the average, everyday Joe, who can only push a button to start their computer, how easy it is to make something simple and entertaining.

David Cassel: As you go through life, at some point you realize that nothing you ever do, if you look backwards over the decades, nothing you ever do will ever be as popular as the Hampsterdance.

These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.