Happy 20th Anniversary to Kool Keith’s third solo studio album—and first studio album under the Dr. Dooom alias—First Come, First Served, originally released May 4, 1999.
Less than a half a minute into First Come, First Served, Kool Keith kills himself.
It’s not an act of suicide per se, like Biggie Smalls at the end of “Suicidal Thoughts.” Instead, Kool Keith kills off one of his most notable characters, Dr. Octagon. On “Who Killed Dr. Octagon?,” the malevolent gynecologist and surgeon is gunned down in a hospital room by “Kool” Keith Thornton’s newly minted personality, Dr. Dooom. Exit the perverted doctor from another planet. Enter the housing project dwelling, cannibalistic serial killer.
Deciding to “kill” his most popular character was a risky move by Keith. He had been dabbling in cooking up alter egos since his days with the Ultramagnetic MCs, debuting the “Rhythm X” persona on the Funk Your Head Up (1992) album. For Keith’s first real “solo” album, he developed Dr. Octagon, and released his debut album of the same name.
Dr. Octagon (1996) centered on the disconcerting adventures of the nominal gynecologist, who conducted bizarre elective surgeries and perpetrated gross violations on his female patients. Dan “The Automator” Nakamura produced the bulk of the album, creating a dark and electronic soundscape, and the legendary DJ Q-Bert contributed his expert scratching skills. The album earned Keith some serious critical acclaim and soon became an “alternative” independent hip-hop classic. Keith and Dan The Automator signed with Dreamworks’ musical arm to redistribute the album to a larger audience under the name Dr. Octagonecologyst. Things quickly went sour with both Dreamworks and Dan The Automator, causing Keith to go back to retool his approach.
As things were falling apart with Dreamworks, Keith teamed with DJ/producer “Kutmasta” Kurt Maitlin to record Sex Style (1997) for the latter’s Funky Ass Records imprint. A lengthy dissertation on Keith’s pursuit of carnal pleasure, the album demonstrated that Keith and Kurt had real chemistry working together. The two teamed up again for First Come, First Served, where Keith debuted his Dr. Dooom alias.
Kool Keith is one the first certifiable weirdos of hip-hop. He became notorious for his spacey rhymes, unorthodox cadences, and unique delivery. As the years went by, his presence on tracks became even stranger, as evidenced through Ultramagnetic MCs’ The Four Horsemen (1993), the 1997 Cenobites EP with Godfather Don, and the aforementioned Dr. Octagon. On First Come, First Served, Keith often adds one extra phrase or couplet to every few lines. Keith almost never rhymes with anything that he’s already said and is frequently offbeat, but he has the panache to pull it off.
Keith continues to create all types of off-the-wall imagery and descriptions throughout First Come, First Served. Assuming the role of a cannibalistic serial killer is about as fertile of ground as there is to be as disturbing as possible.
Keith has the uncanny ability to turn a head-scratchingly weird phrase like few others in hip-hop. It takes a creatively twisted mind to come up with something like “Apartment 223,” Keith’s first foray into the mind of Dr. Dooom. Keith knows how to weave vividly ludicrous descriptions of his cannibalistic proclivities and the various torture that he performs on his victims. He proclaims, “I’m taking your ass in a rented van to Venice Beach in a cardboard box / Beating down your knees with a bag of Masterlocks.” He later adds, “It’s hot, I’m drinking soda, with a Tech-9 spraying your fan belt motor.”
The production for First Come, First Served is credited to the Diesel Truckers, a beat-making tandem comprised of Keith and Kurt. The two craft a soundtrack that’s impeccably odd, but also grittier than Dr. Octagon and his other releases. Tracks like “Dr. Dooom’s in the Room” and “Mental Case” prove unsettling not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the menacing musical backdrop.
“Body Bag” is one of the best songs on the album, as Keith rhymes over dirge-like keyboards and an eerie string loop taken from Herbie Hancock’s Death Wish soundtrack. Keith embraces his inner serial killer as he describes the process of conducting his murder spree, detailing his psychotic behavior. He raps, “Walk into the Beverly Center with a jockstrap dude / Approach security with a delivery / Never stating a major, cut cables in elevators / Make the rush hour stop dragging dead elephants in department stores.”
Dr. Dooom is one of the few serial killers, fictional or otherwise, to ever have an equally demented roommate. Canadian emcee Jacky Jasper assumes the role on two tracks on First Come. The Toronto-born emcee originally recorded as HDV in the early ’90s, before linking up years later with Keith. He transforms the faux British accent he used to utilize into a southern twang on both “Call the Cops” and “Neighbors Next Door.”
Jacky thoroughly commits to portraying the mind of a madman, boasting on “Call the Cops” that “I penetrated your neck with a Bic pen / With a belt around my waist like book me / Don’t ask my neighbors, bodies dead, 69 flavors / Behaviors smoking glass with coleslaw hanging out your ass.” Keith certainly keeps up with him on “Neighbors,” rapping, “You think I’m off limits driving a ’74 Dodge Plymouth / Up the street with human feet colored apple-green / With spots eating blueberry Pop Tarts.”
Keith also dedicates some of First Come, First Served to life in the projects, exploring both its rough and absurd facets. He teams with Bay Area emcee Motion Man on the ominous “Housing Authority,” using his verses to describe the chaos on avenues like E. 170th St. and Fordham Rd. in the Bronx.
“Welfare Love” is hilarious, with Keith waxing faux romantic over a loop of The Moments’ “Sexy Mama.” He seemingly strings together stream of consciousness sketches of his life growing up in the projects. Almost all of his ruminations are surreally ridiculous, like whether or not roaches have ambulances, but there are kernels of truth buried in the absurdity. He raps, “I had Pro Keds with Lee suits / Always used to stare in your face / Take you on the roof, check out my pigeon coop dressed up like Dracula / Eating a slice of pizza on your stoop.” To my knowledge, Keith has never explained exactly why he would need to dress up like a vampire to enjoy eating a pizza slice.
A large portion of First Come, First Served is dedicated to Keith engaging in one of his favorite activities: trashing other emcees. It’s often the best portion of the album as well. There’s something about Kool Keith just laying into wack emcees for being wack. The palpable mix of off-the-wall insults and pure and utter contempt in his voice makes the songs effective and outright hysterical.
One of the best examples of this type of track is “No Chorus,” or in Keith’s own words, “I Don’t Want the Motherfucking Chorus.” Keith reserves special scorn for those who he believes are only interested in rhyming for purposes of prestige. The bare bones drum track and synth tones are ideal vehicles for Keith to essentially heckle a crew of inferior rappers while they’re performing. He raps, “What's up, you fucking amateur? / Your engineer will cue in your bullshit cadence / That shit sounds simple; look at this n***a rhyming to himself / Wack as fuck, smell like shit for one buck.” He ends the track spitting more insults, stating, “I’mma tell you straight, look in the fucking mirror: you wack.”
Keith targets perpetrating emcees “fronting fly” on “You Live At Home With Your Mom,” lambasting them for fronting like they’re wealthy while sporting “vinyl alligator boots” and fake watches (“You ordered that fucking kit from the ad in The Source, boss”). Meanwhile, “Live” Keith describes the outlandish lengths he’ll go through to harass rappers in their own homes, which includes “smearing your mailbox with peanut butter and jelly with pickles from the deli / Black shoe polish on your glass table, I’m ready and able / Going on the roof when the pay-per-view fight come on, click off the cable.”
Keith unleashes his most lethal blasts on “Leave Me Alone,” his three-verse screed against the fakeness of the music industry. No one is safe, from the record executives to the rap media reporters to video directors to rappers who “buck dance like a barrel full of monkeys.” The song reflects the perspective of a jaded emcee who has seen and done it all, and has no patience to play label politics. He muses, “I’m like Prince, you might see me once every five years at the record company / While most of y’all live at the label begging for your rent and car notes to be paid.”
First Come, First Served would be the first and last Dr. Dooom project for nearly a decade. For reasons that I’ve never understood, Keith fell out with Kurt sometime during the early ’00s. The two reunited to release Dr. Dooom 2 (2008) which is notable, as Keith rarely released “official” sophomore albums for his character-based projects.
Like many great abstract or experimental emcees, Keith succeeds on First Come, First Served by managing to take the conceit seriously, but not too seriously. Again, considering that the album is about a murderous cannibal, the margin of error is very slim, but Keith keeps things on the rails. He maintains his composure while still managing to have fun, often at the expense of others. But without these garbage emcees, Keith would have no one to serve.