It turns out one of the biggest revelations to come out of Melbourne’s DJ scene in the past few years was there when it all began.
Giovanni Polizzi, the bravura behind Papa Smurf, emerged from Melbourne’s burgeoning rave culture in the 1990s to become one of the city’s most iconic underground DJs at the turn of the century, only to near-vanish after “doing everything I wanted to achieve”.
The age of social media, streaming services and self-promotion passed him by, rendering him a mythic figure of sorts among club-goers of old. So it surprised everyone – not least of all Giovanni – when he suddenly emerged at Pitch Festival in 2019, to shock a naive new generation of festival heads with a performance unlike any they’d witnessed before.
“It’s three in the morning, they’ve been listening to techno all fucking day, and here comes an old school trance DJ,” Giovanni says. “Of course you’re going to lose your shit.”
Giovanni’s set was widely considered to be among the festival’s greatest of all time, hype amplified by his mysterious lack of digital presence.
Papa Smurf has since become one of the most in-demand DJs in Melbourne – selling out Port Melbourne’s gigantic Timber Yard within days – before securing one of the most rewarding sets on the Australian festival calendar; the closing spot on Let Them Eat Cake’s main stage for New Year’s Day.
Giovanni is a purist – someone with an intricate knowledge of electronic music who chose to dedicate himself to the art of mixing rather than production – essentially, a DJ’s DJ. He credits his effortless return to embodying a forgotten DJ tradition, having dedicated most of his life to perfecting what’s now a transformed, if not lost, art.
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“Not many people can do what we do,” he says. “We started working as mobile DJs in the mid 90s. We were doing house gigs because we were just kids, because the music that was produced back then inspired us.
“The DJs that have been around for a long time have got the experience to rock up and do a four hour set and blow people away. We’ve got that in us because we grew up on four hour sets. We didn’t grow up on the current one-hour, ‘Come in and smash everything because you’re the biggest DJ in Melbourne.’ When you’re DJing, you have to think of the artist before you and the artist playing after you. You need to leave room for everyone to play a great set, you can’t just come in and play nothing but hits.
“The dance music scene was a fresh culture back in the 90s, it wasn’t like today where every man and his dog’s a fucking DJ.
“It was underground and when you’re young and you love dance music, you stick to it. My aim back then was to be Melbourne’s best DJ. To do that, you’ve got to bust your arse and ensure whatever you touch turns to gold.
“It was all about going to record stores to make sure you had tracks no one else had. Your music was your greatest asset. If you had good music that came out on record, no one else had it.”
Giovanni stems from an era when Melbourne’s electronic music scene was centred around its nightclubs. Today, as noise restrictions, evasive liquor licences and COVID-19 dissolve clubs en masse, festivals like Let Them Eat Cake have become the new home of Australian electronic music.
“Don’t get me wrong, today’s music scene is a lot better,” Giovanni says. “There’s so much diversity, so much variety.
“But for me, when you look at the clubs that we had in the 90s, there were club nights on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and they were busy. Today, we just don’t have that.
“It was a different time. It was a different generation of people. There are a lot more genres now, but what’s relevant and what’s not?
“People are doing festivals now because it’s just easier. To run a club these days takes a lot out of you. There are so many promoters, so many DJs. The scene has evolved so quickly and the internationals are so expensive that they don’t want to come out for a club gig, that’s secondary to them.”
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The grandeur of a festival stage and an inexperienced audience have opened new possibilities for a nostalgic connoisseur. Papa Smurf can now play the role of an expert craftsman, who surprises and delights on the rare occasions he chooses to take the stage.
Despite his insistence on carefully restricting the shows he plays, he was “absolutely blown away” to be offered the defining set on what promises to be the biggest event of the year.
The enormity isn’t lost on him. Papa Smurf will now close the book on two devastating years of COVID-19, heralding the return of festivals to Melbourne on the first day of 2022 with an entrancing exclamation mark.
“The people at Pitch saw something they had never seen before,” he says. “Unless you understand the music, unless you were there at that time, you can’t replicate it. It’s too hard.
“It’s like getting a DJ today to go out there and play an old-school Bob Sinclair house set. It doesn’t work. Equally, you can’t just rock up and play a 90s trance set for people who aren’t prepared for it, or a house set for that matter.
“There’s a lot of classic music, but it has to be programmed right. You can’t just drop Sandstorm every track. They’ve given me the closing set at Let Them Eat Cake; I’ll be the odd one out, if you look at the other acts playing, they’re a lot softer than me.
“So people who were at Pitch can expect something way better, we’re taking it to the next level. Buy your ticket and don’t fucking miss out.”
Head to the Let Them Eat Cake website for the full lineup and tickets.