Henri Belolo, who co-founded pop group the Village People and co-wrote hits including YMCA, Go West and In The Navy, has died at the age of 82.
A pioneer of disco, Belolo was also behind one of hip-hop’s first crossover hits, Break Machine’s Street Dance.
The record label he founded, Scorpio Music, confirmed his death “with deep sorrow” on Wednesday, but gave no further details.
“Henri will live on in our hearts and minds forever,” it added.
Belolo was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1936. He moved to France in his twenties and received his musical education in Parisian jazz clubs.
As he refined his skills as a DJ and producer, he chanced upon an import of TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by the band MSFB and fell in love with the sounds of disco.
He moved to the US in 1973, where he met fellow Moroccan producer Jacques Morali. They teamed up to produce hits for the Ritchie Family, including Brazil, Best Disco In Town and Give Me A Break.
‘Bigotry and hypocrisy’
In 1977, he and Morali assembled the six-member Village People after a chance encounter in New York. “We were walking around [Greenwich] Village and we saw an Indian playing bells on the street,” he told The Parisian Today.
“Intrigued, we followed him to a bar where he was a waiter, and sang a disco number every 20 minutes. Among the customers was a guy with a cowboy hat. That was the trigger: To create a group with all the stereotypes of the American male.”
The group were simultaneously high-concept and high camp, embracing gay culture with colourful costumes and life-affirming disco anthems.
“We were keen on doing something for [gay liberation], because Jacques was gay and I was feeling that an injustice was done to the gay community,” Belolo told DJ History in 2004.
“I did not like that American mentality of bigotry and hypocrisy, and I didn’t see why these people would be treated like this. Like black people, as well – I did not like the way they were treated.
“So I was not doing this, really, as a businessman trying to make a fortune… I really did it as a provocative, subversive way of telling you, ‘This is the way it is.'”
Belolo wasn’t sure the Village People would cross over to the mainstream, but the irresistible choruses of Macho Man, In The Navy and YMCA helped the band sell 100 million records worldwide.
Although their fortunes declined after the disastrous 1980 film Can’t Stop the Music, Belolo continued to exert an influence on dance music.
Along with Morali, he wrote hit records for Break Machine and Eartha Kitt in the 1980s. After moving back to France, his label released international hits like Eiffel 65’s Blue (Da Ba Dee), Gala’s Freed From Desire and Haddaway’s What Is Love?
More recently, the label, which is now run by his son Anthony, has topped the charts with J Balvin and Willy Williams’ Mi Gente, and Loud Luxury’s club smash Body On My.
The producer died on Saturday in France, Scorpio Music said. A funeral has already taken place, with plans for a public memorial service to be announced soon.
“I am devastated by the untimely death of Henri Belolo who was my former producer, mentor and co-creator of Village People,” said the band’s lead singer/policeman Victor Willis.
“[He] leaves an impressive body of work that helped shape the disco genre, and as a record executive, he was par excellence,” he said.