Propelled by an explorer's restless curiosity, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's groundbreaking recordings point beyond conventional notions of music and culture. His latest album, RAMU, reflects this searcher spirit and may be his boldest adventure yet. It fuses Hart's massive and ever-expanding digital database (the Random Access Musical Universe) with cutting-edge urban dance rhythms, social commentary, and contributions from contemporary and past masters. "For this record, I knew what I wanted," he says. "This wasn't a wandering-in-the-desert kind of project. There were certain things at the core: a great backbeat, great groove, using non-traditional and homemade instruments to include the world's music in contemporary dance music. I wanted to create a new stew, a new recipe for making music."
Hart stresses the unique process behind the album. "Everything goes through RAMU, the mothership," he says of the database he has been working with since the 1980s. "It's my instrument, and it's a very powerful compositional tool. It's vast, it holds new treasures, and it's still revealing itself to me." From his archives, Hart constructed songs around the voices of a 1940s auctioneer (the opening track "Auctioneers") and recordings of an old longshoreman's chant ("Wine Wine Wine"). "RAMU is truly a multidimensional instrument that allows you to travel to new universes at the flip of a switch," Hart says. "This record includes sounds from radio telescopes around the world, solar winds, the radiation that comes from light and is turned into sound, weather conditions from hurricanes."
Naturally, the new album features Hart's rich musical network, including maestro Zakir Hussain on tabla, bassist Oteil Burbridge, talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju, conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, and guitarist Steve Kimock. Recordings of two late, great artists – Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and percussionist Babatunde Olatunji – also appear on the album. Animal Collective's Avey Tare contributed vocals, as did Tarriona "Tank" Ball, who fronts the New Orleans-based Tank and the Bangas. Jason Hann of The String Cheese Incident added drums, and Michal Menert (formerly of the EDM collective Pretty Lights) co-produced the album. Many lyrics were composed by another familiar collaborator: Grateful Dead wordsmith Robert Hunter. "He spins tales, he's a great mythologist, like all those characters that came to life in Dead songs," says Hart. "I think this album has some brilliant writing by Hunter, some of his best writing."
With the new album, Hart has assembled a profound statement surveying a lifetime of making music. Paying tribute to Jerry Garcia and Puerto Rican percussion master Giovanni Hidalgo, it also documents a historic Indonesian gamelan before filtering it through futuristic technologies and rhythms. "It's a hybrid of different influences that have moved me over the years," says Hart, "and if you're being honest with your music, that's what usually happens – new things are created from the old."