"I feel like too many people say they're this and that, and that type of shit bothers me," Longo says of show-boaters, one of his pet hates. "I still don't call myself an artist. An artist to me is someone that's in the forefront and getting out on stage. It took 10 or 12 years for me to actually say I am a record producer."
This helps explain why you may not be familiar with Longo's music. In the 25 years he's been releasing records, the New York producer has shied away from the exposure that his peers have embraced, but this is a man with plenty to shout about. From engineering in seminal recording studios and working in legendary record stores, to remixing Sade and working with Eric B & Rakim and Deee-Lite, it's a wonder that Longo isn't as renowned as Masters At Work and Todd Terry. Instead he has remained a cult figure in house music history, with a repertoire of classics many will recognise, but only a few can name.
"How hot is it in New York?" Longo asks rhetorically at the start of our conversation. "It's so hot that I saw the devil riding a bicycle licking a popsicle." It's mid-July, and the re-mastering process is nearly complete on the BBE double-album Hot Music. Longo sounds jovial. The compilation collects tracks that date back to 1989. It should enlighten a whole new audience to his offbeat house and hip-hop.
"B-boying, boom boxes & beat-making—mixes splices & dices," reads the release's tagline. It sums up the roots of Longo's musical journey. The self-confessed "country boy" from Long Island started DJing while studying at the State University Of New York, although before that he was already hooked on the emergent sound of hip-hop.
"Growing up in New York City, it's around you, you are that, you're born into that," says Longo. "If you love music, you have to get excited about the first time 'Rappers Delight' came out. That's when all the pause button stuff would come in. We would have our cassette decks and we would record off the radio cool songs and there was always a battle in the street."
Longo didn't consider himself active in music until he graduated and laid his hands on a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and a drum machine. He'd found inspiration on 27th street in Manhattan when he saw someone with a razor blade and tape creating a medley out of different songs. "I would see the white editing tape passing over the playhead," he recalls, "so you could see exactly where the cuts were, and everything was so on time."
While piecing together his own equipment, Longo was simultaneously working his way into the world of recording studios. He started as an intern at the legendary Power Play Studios in Queens, where the likes of Run DMC, LL Cool J and EPMD turned out some of their classic productions. From fixing headphones, ordering equipment and aligning tape machines to photocopying manuals, Longo grabbed the opportunity to develop his knowledge on the job.
"After I did maintenance I jumped into second engineer," he says. "Not first, and the reason behind that was so that I could be in the studio every day, whereas the first engineer would roll with the client. I was sitting next to a patch bay and doing total recalls on the SSL board, and I knew where all the clients' tapes were, so I was a big asset to the recording studio."
When he wasn't at Power Play, Longo spent the rest of his week working at Vinylmania, one of the most renowned record stores in New York. Opened in 1978, Charlie Grappone's shop was a focal point in the city's house and disco scene. Longo worked behind the counter between around 1986 and 1990, a time of seismic change in dance music. "That was a school for me," he says, "and as a DJ, just hearing a lot of music and seeing the way people react to those types of records, that was a wonderful time."
"I was a great salesman too," he adds. "I would ask my clients, 'How much do you want to spend today?' And they were like, 'If it's good probably…' and I would cut 'em short and say, 'OK, you need this, this, this and this.' It got to the point where they would just come in and say, 'Joey, what do I need?' and they wouldn't even have to listen to the records. I could count two or three times when someone came back and said, 'Joey this isn't really for me.'"
One of the regulars in Vinylmania was Larry Levan, who would often come shopping in his pyjamas to stock up on records. At this pivotal time for house music, Longo says he had ties to all the best nightclubs, due to his reputation for serving the wax-loving people of New York.
"I would go to the Paradise Garage, but not religiously," says Longo. "After work there were a lot of little loft parties going on where the music used to be pumping! Just a dark room, sweaty, the DJ would set up his stuff and word of mouth people would just go there and be free."
Between his work at the studio and the store, Longo was in a unique position to offer advice to the producers shaping the city's house identity. Artists would call on him when they were in Power Play to gauge whether or not their new productions would sell at Vinylmania. As Longo puts it, "I never wanted to knock someone down while they were making their song. I preferred for them to have a bunch of songs and for me to pick the best ones."
After such a noteworthy arrival, a dizzying amount of releases followed in 1990 and 1991, credited to Pal Joey and scores of other aliases. Some of the more prominent tracks include the fractured throwdown of Dreamhouse's "I Can Feel It," as well as Espresso's bleep techno one-off "Lets Get Down," not to mention music under the aliases House Conductor, Beautiful People, Roots Foundation and many more.
"The whole thing behind the aliases was that if one sound worked I could fit to that sound," says Longo. "If I just put artist Pal Joey on every record, it's like, 'But last time he did a house music record, this time it's a hip-hop record," so it was a way for me to lay back in the cut and change my sound in an instant." There are aliases from that era that suggest he was throwing every idea at the wall and seeing which ones stuck, with some never making it to a second release, but the approach ties in with the innate off-beat qualities that are common in his music.
That impulsiveness is most noticeable in the material on Loop D' Loop, the label formed for the more widely represented Pal Joey moniker. Beginning in 1990 with #1, the series ran up to the 24th instalment and featured dance floor-focused cuts that were heavy on samples, crafty beat edits and weighty bottom-end. "Loop D' Loop was all the stuff that was really quirky," Longo confirms. "It was usually an instrumental, we could call them 'lost' tracks." For all that underlying strangeness, a track like "Partytime" on #2 can't be considered anything other than an instant hit. Go hunting further through the catalogue and the story is often the same.
"I'm a selfish DJ, I'm a selfish producer," says Longo. "I do things first 'cause I love to do it, and hopefully people like it, but just like anything else there's some songs they like and some songs they like less, some they don't like at all. I love them all. Some of them grew up to be doctors and lawyers and some of them pump gas but they're all my babies."
While he was blazing a trail on the fringe of New York house music, Longo's studio engineering led to a lasting relationship with Boogie Down Productions, among other collaborations. As well as providing beats for their final album, Sex And Violence, Longo also stepped out from behind the desk and moonlighted as shifty neighbourhood drug dealer Rob in the video for "Love's Gonna Getcha (Material Love)."
Since then, Longo has kicked off ever more projects, largely responding to his roots in hip-hop and house, with his Cabaret Records label established to distinguish certain aliases as being more song-oriented. While different ventures elicit different styles from him, Longo struggles with any precise categorisation of his or any other dance music. "How many times can you reinvent the wheel?" he asks. "Unless they started making house music that is three quarter time and everyone was dancing to it, it's still four-on-the-floor."
DJing recently in Berlin has only strengthened Longo's perspective, with more gig offers coming to him than ever before, due in part to the widespread return of classic house values in contemporary dance music. "They're telling me it's a resurgence of house music!" he says. "I'm like, 'Well you guys are fools because you forgot about it all this time!' It tells me that people are too fashionable. How could you love something one minute and… well, maybe you could love your wife one minute and then hate her, but music?"
This opinion reflects the singular view Longo has had since he caught the tape edit bug, avoiding the trends and cash-ins that have seen so many fall by the creative wayside. This is a man who still proudly works on much of the equipment he honed his craft on, and for whom record sales are secondary to getting the music out there.
As he explains, "When a record went out to me it was like a feed. I knew it would take a while for this type of music to reach the masses, so I would just leave it alone and move on. I never got overly upset or overly happy about anything, I just wanted to enjoy what I did, and if people liked it, it would show in sales or a tap on the back saying, 'Great job.'"
It might not always play out like that for honest souls, but in the case of Pal Joey, there is a feeling that his stubborn refusal to do it anyone else's way is finally paying off. When your profile starts to rise beyond cult status after 20-odd years, the foundations are strong enough to withstand any pressures to conform or "play the game." A shrewd businessman he may be, and an experienced producer he certainly is. But despite his protests to the contrary, Longo operates first and foremost with the creative soul of an artist, and the timeless tracks that approach has yielded makes him one of house music's unsung greats.