He concurrently pursued a solo career, releasing the experimental electronic fusion album Thousand Knives (1978), and later released the pioneering album B-2 Unit (1980), which included the electro classic “Riot in Lagos”. From thereon, he produced more solo records, collaborated with many international artists, and pursued a wide variety of projects, such as having composed music for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony. His composition “Energy Flow” (1999) was the first instrumental number-one single in Japan’s Oricon charts history.
In 1980 Sakamoto released the solo album B-2 Unit, which has been referred to as his “edgiest” record and is known for the electronic song “Riot in Lagos”, which is considered an early example of electro music (electro-funk), as Sakamoto anticipated the beats and sounds of electro. Early electro and hip hop artists, such as Afrika Bambaata and Kurtis Mantronik were influenced by the album—especially “Riot in Lagos”—with Mantronik citing the work as a major influence on his electro hip hop group Mantronix. “Riot in Lagos” was later included in Playgroup‘s compilation album Kings of Electro (2007), alongside other significant electro compositions, such as Hashim‘s “Al-Nafyish” (1983).
Also in 1980, Sakamoto released the single “War Head/Lexington Queen”, an experimental synthpop and electro record, and began a long-standing collaboration with David Sylvian, when he co-wrote and performed on the Japan track “Taking Islands In Africa”. In 1982, Sakamoto worked on another collaboration with Sylvian, a single entitled “Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music“. Sakamoto’s 1980 collaboration with Kiyoshiro Imawano, “Ikenai Rouge Magic”, topped the Oricon singles chart.
Sakamoto released a number of solo albums during the 1980s. While primarily focused on the piano and synthesizer, this series of albums included collaborations with artists such as Sylvian, David Byrne, Thomas Dolby, Nam June Paik and Iggy Pop. Sakamoto would alternate between exploring a variety of musical styles, ideas and genres—captured most notably in his 1983 album Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia—and focusing on a specific subject or theme, such as the Italian Futurism movement in Futurista (1986). For the song “Broadway Boogie Woogie”, Sakamoto liberally used samples from Ridley Scott‘s film Blade Runner and blended them with raucous, sax-driven techno-pop.
In 1995 Sakamoto released Smoochy, described by the Sound On Sound website as Sakamoto’s “excursion into the land of easy-listening and Latin”, followed by the 1996 album, which featured a number of previously released pieces arranged for solo piano, violin and cello. During the December of 1996 Sakamoto, composed the entirety of an hour-long orchestral work entitled “Untitled 01” and released as the album Discord (1998). The Sony Classical release of Discord was sold in a jewel case that was covered by a blue-colored slipcase made of foil, while the CD also contained a data video track. In 1998 the Ninja Tune record label released the Prayer/Salvation Remixes, for which prominent electronica artists such as Ashley Beedle and Andrea Parker remixed sections from the “Prayer” and “Salvation” parts of Discord. Sakamoto collaborated primarily with guitarist David Torn and DJ Spooky—artist Laurie Anderson provides spoken word on the composition—and the recording was condensed from nine live performances of the work, recorded during a Japanese tour. Discord was divided into four parts: “Grief”, “Anger”, “Prayer” and “Salvation”; Sakamoto explained in 1998 that he was “not religious, but maybe spiritual” and “The Prayer is to anybody or anything you want to name.” Sakamoto further explained:
The themes of Prayer and Salvation came out of the feelings of sadness and frustration that I expressed in the first two movements, about the fact that people are starving in the world, and we are not able to help them. People are dying, and yet the political and economical and historical situations are too complicated and inert for us to do much about it. So I got really angry with myself. I asked myself what I could do, and since there’s not a lot I can do on the practical level, all that’s left for me is to pray. But it’s not enough just to pray; I also had to think about actually saving those people, so the last movement is called Salvation. That’s the journey of the piece.
In 1998 Italian ethnomusicologist Massimo Milano published Ryuichi Sakamoto. Conversazioni through the Padova, Arcana imprint. All three editions of the book were published in the Italian language. Sakamoto’s next album, BTTB (1998)—an acronym for “Back to the Basics”—was a fairly opaque reaction to the prior year’s multilayered, lushly orchestrated Discord. The album comprised a series of original pieces on solo piano, including “Energy Flow” (a major hit in Japan) and a frenetic, four-hand arrangement of the Yellow Magic Orchestra classic “Tong Poo”. On the BTTB U.S. tour, he opened the show performing a brief avant-gardeDJ set under the stage name DJ Lovegroove.
Sakamoto teamed with cellist Jaques Morelenbaum (a member of his 1996 trio), and Morelenbaum’s wife, Paula, on a pair of albums celebrating the work of bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim. They recorded their first album, Casa (2001), mostly in Jobim’s home studio in Rio de Janeiro, with Sakamoto performing on the late Jobim’s grand piano. The album was well received, having been included in the list of New York Times‘s top albums of 2002.
Sakamoto collaborated with Alva Noto (an alias of Carsten Nicolai) to release Vrioon, an album of Sakamoto’s piano clusters treated by Nicolai’s unique style of digital manipulation, involving the creation of “micro-loops” and minimal percussion. The two produced this work by passing the pieces back and forth until both were satisfied with the result. This debut, released on German label Raster-Noton, was voted record of the year 2004 in the electronica category by British magazine The Wire. They then released Insen (2005) – while produced in a similar manner to Vrioon, this album is somewhat more restrained and minimalist.
In 2005, Finnish mobile phone manufacturer Nokia hired Sakamoto to compose ring and alert tones for their high-end phone, the Nokia 8800. In 2006 Nokia offers the ringtones for free at Nokias website.A recent reunion with YMO pals Hosono and Takahashi also caused a stir in the Japanese press. They released a single “Rescue” in 2007 and a DVD “HAS/YMO” in 2008. In July 2009 Sakamoto was honored as Officier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres at the French Embassy in Tokyo.
On July 10, 2014, Sakamoto released a statement indicating that he had been diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in late June of the same year. He announced a break from his work while he sought treatment and recovery. On August 3, 2015, Sakamoto posted on his website that he was “in great shape … I am thinking about returning to work” and announced that he would be providing music for Yoji Yamada‘s Haha to Kuraseba (Living with My Mother).
Sakamoto’s production credits represent a prolific career in this role. In 1983, he produced Mari Iijima‘s debut album Rosé, the same year that the Yellow Magic Orchestra was disbanded. Sakamoto subsequently worked with artists such as Thomas Dolby;Aztec Camera, on the Dreamland (1993) album; and Imai Miki, co-producing her 1994 album A Place In The Sun.
Frame, who worked with Sakamoto under the Aztec Camera moniker, explained in a 1993 interview preceding the release of Dreamland that he needed to wait a lengthy period of time before he was able to work with Sakamoto, who wrote two soundtracks, a solo album and the music for the opening ceremony at the Barcelona Olympics, prior to working with Frame over four weeks in a New York, United States (US) studio. Frame explained that he was impressed by the work of YMO and the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence soundtrack, explaining: “That’s where you realise that the atmosphere around his compositions is actually in the writing – it’s got nothing to do with synthesisers.” Frame’s decision to ask Sakamoto was finalized after he saw his performance at the Japan Festival that was held in London, United Kingdom. Of his experience recording with Sakamoto, Frame said:
He’s got this reputation as a boffin, a professor of music who sits in front of a computer screen. But he’s more intuitive than that, and he’s always trying to corrupt what he knows. Halfway through the day in the studio, he will stop and play some hip hop or some house for 10 minutes, and then go back to what he was doing. He’s always trying to trip himself up like that, and to discover new things. Just before we worked together he’d been out in Borneo, I think, with a DAT machine, looking for new sounds.
Frequent collaborator David Sylvian contributed lead vocals to “Forbidden Colours” – the main theme to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – which became a minor hit. Sixteen years later, the piece resurfaced as a popular dance track called “Heart of Asia” (by the group Watergate).
Several tracks from Sakamoto’s earlier solo albums have also appeared in film soundtracks. In particular, variations of “Chinsagu No Hana” (from Beauty) and “Bibo No Aozora” (from 1996) provide the poignant closing pieces for Sue Brooks’s Japanese Story (2003) and Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Babel (2006), respectively.
Sakamoto is a member of the anti-nuclear organization Stop Rokkasho and has demanded the closing of the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant. In 2012, he organized the “No Nukes 2012” concert, which featured performances by 18 groups, including Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk. Sakamoto is also known as a critic of copyright law, arguing in 2009 that it is antiquated in the information age. He argued that in “the last 100 years, only a few organizations have dominated the music world and ripped off both fans and creators” and that “with the internet we are going back to having tribal attitudes towards music.”
In 2006 Sakamoto, in collaboration with Japan’s largest independent music company Avex Group, founded Commmons (コモンズ Komonzu?), a record label seeking to change the manner in which music is produced. Sakamoto has explained that Commmons is not his label, but is a platform for all aspiring artists to join as equal collaborators, to share the benefits of the music industry. On the initiative’s “About” page, the label is described as a project that “aims to find new possibilities for music, while making meaningful contribution to culture and society.” The name “Commmons” is spelt with three “m”s because the third “m” stands for music.
Sakamoto’s first of two marriages occurred in 1972, but ended in divorce two years later—Sakamoto has a daughter from this relationship. Sakamoto then married popular Japanese pianist and singer Akiko Yano in 1982, following several musical collaborations with her, including touring work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Sakamoto’s second marriage ended in August 2006, 14 years after a mutual decision to live separately—Yano and Sakamoto raised one daughter, J-pop singer Miu Sakamoto. He has lived with his manager since around 1990 and has two children with her.
The music video for “Risky”, written and directed by Meiert Avis, also won the first ever MTV “Breakthrough Video Award“. The ground breaking video explores transhumanist philosopher FM-2030‘s (Persian: فریدون اسفندیاری) ideas of “Nostalgia for the Future”, in the form of an imagined love affair between a robot and one of Man Ray‘s models in Paris in the late 1930s. Additional inspiration was drawn from Jean Baudrillard, Edvard Munch‘s 1894 painting “Puberty”, and Roland Barthes “Death of the Author“. The surrealist black and white video uses stop motion, light painting, and other retro in-camera effects techniques. Meiert Avis shot Sakamoto while at work on the score for “The Last Emperor” in London. Sakamoto also appears in the video painting words and messages to an open shutter camera. Iggy Pop, who performs the vocals on “Risky”, chose not to appear in the video, allowing his performance space to be occupied by the surrealist era robot.