“Car Thief” is a kind of sequel to “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, the continuing story of a man who likes to break windows, grow his own cheeba, and write poems. Although the lyrical content feels a bit repetitive from previous songs on Paul’s Boutique, the chill, soulful groove makes the track memorable.
The song begins with some melodic scratching. The first scratching sound is at a high pitch, and then each subsequent one gets lower and lower. This trick felt fresh in 1989, but is now heard all over pop radio (the instrumental hook on LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem”, for instance, is indebted to the scratches the Beasties and the Dust Brothers pioneered).
“Car Thief” samples classics from the likes of Funk Factory and Funkadelic, so no wonder it’s probably the most soulful track on Paul’s Boutique. The minimalist drum part, the fuzzy bass, and the choppy guitars yield an uncompromisingly laid-back groove that captures the sound of casually strolling down a Brooklyn street on a Sunday afternoon. Its chill nature is a nice contrast to much of the record’s frenetic pacing. Given the Dust Brothers’ “copy-n’-past” production style on most of Paul’s Boutique, there’s a danger of the listener suffering from information overload. Mellow, relatively minimalistic tracks like “Car Thief” make the record more digestible.
The lyrics describe a life of violence (“Hit a motherfucker’s face with the cue ball”), petty crime (“. . . me and my crew were out breakin’ windows”), and drug usage (“I had a beautiful experience on Ecstasy”). There’s nothing new here. As always, though, the Beasties manage to spice up otherwise hackneyed material through their pop culture allusions and creative sample placements. We get references to Hawaii Five-O and Donovan. The sampled line “See, personally I wouldn’t even wanna go out like that” ingeniously follows the lyric “You try to take what isn’t yours like a goddamn rat.” The line might sound cheesy or forced if the Beasties rapped it, but when it’s placed in the tune as a sample, it lends external support to what the boys are saying.
The line “Homeboy throw in the towel / Your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell” is significant because it is one of the only times the three Beastie Boys literally sing in unison on the record. The lyric is a reference to the photographer friend of the Beasties, who became so inseparable from the trio that he was often referred to as the “fourth Beastie Boy”. Despite the absurdity and crassness of the lyric, when the boys sing it together it sounds almost innocent, like a campfire sing-along.
Clearly, the Beasties and the Dust Brothers recognized how sweet the central groove is. After the boys are done rapping, they let the instrumental track play on for almost a minute. The scratching sounds from the opening come back again, but then it’s just the sexiness of the rhythm section and some killer background vocals. Maybe “Car Thief” isn’t saying anything profound, but it’s sure a delight to listen to.