Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator,” an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Careers in music don’t always go as planned. In most instances, the listening world will pick and choose what they like regardless of an artist’s intent, disregarding the larger vision for the appeal of a single piece of it. Few artists rise and establish themselves the way Ryuichi Sakamoto did. Renowned today for his contributions to pop, early techno, orchestral composition, and experimental music, Sakamoto’s audience trusts him to craft high-quality, thought-provoking music regardless of the broad category each work fits into. From his beginnings with the seminal Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra to his myriad releases, collaborations, film scores, and performances Sakamoto has never failed to push the envelope of experimentalism in the various styles of music he takes on.
Yellow Magic Orchestra
Sakamoto’s career began with the band Yellow Magic Orchestra, which came into existence right after he completed his studies in music composition and ethnomusicology. Each of the three members of the band had, in their previous efforts, dabbled in the relatively new world of synthetic sound—Sakamoto at school, experimenting with the Moog and other synths, Harry Hosono with experiments in electronic rock, and Osamu Kitajima’s work in psych rock that incorporated electronic instruments. Their debut self-titled album of 1978 quickly catapulted them into popularity, garnering an international record deal, their initial hit “Computer Game” following soon after. The combination of catchy electronic sounds and abstract, techno-pop imagery of the band were a pioneering combination, influencing many early electronic acts across the world.
Their debut kicked off a series of albums that furthered their use of electronic instruments, samplers, and computers with each release. At various times throughout their history, the band splintered into solo projects and other collaborations by each of the members, but they always seemed to return to their original configuration to work together.
First Solo Works
Shortly after his first release with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto released a solo album that identified him as an individual entity. 1978’s Thousand Knives of Ryūichi Sakamoto showcased a range of Sakamoto’s musical interests, spanning various experimental electronic techniques alongside traditional instrumentation. It was his second solo work that proved to be massively influential in styles of music that are rarely credited to Sakamoto. Early electro-influenced hip-hop acts like Afrika Bambaata and Mantronix claim to have taken inspiration from B-2 Unit, particularly the synthetic percussive style that found its way into various hip-hop hits of the 80s.
“Riot in Lagos” from Thousand Knives of Ryūichi Sakamoto
Eight phenomenal and varied albums later, Sakamoto released another influential album, 1987’s Neo Geo. Featuring the likes of Iggy Pop, Bill Laswell, and Bootsy Collins, the album combined traditional Japanese music with then-contemporary Western styles like funk, a fusion that resonated with fans of both component styles.
Film and Theater
As he matured as a musician, Sakamoto also branched out into other areas of the audible arts. In 1999 he premiered an experimental, multimedia opera entitled LIFE, which featured contributors of all walks, from Salman Rushdie to the Dalai Lama.
One of Sakamoto’s most notable achievements is his Grammy award for the score of The Last Emperor, on which he collaborated with David Byrne and Cong Su. Sakamoto also provided music for Little Buddha, Snake Eyes, Wuthering Heights, and more recently, Bollywood blockbuster Dhobi Ghatt.