One of the most surreal assemblages of cultural signifiers I’ve ever encountered was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2011, when the rapper Riff Raff—soon to shoot to stardom after inspiring James Franco’s character in the 2013 Harmony Korine movie, Spring Breakers—performed for a small crowd inside of a new-age multimedia installation by the artist Matt Barton. Riff Raff cycled through his soon-to-be-recognizable tropes, flashing a diamond Ghostbusters chain, and hurling rice into an audience that included the electronic producer James Ferraro and the rapper Lil B, composer of such songs as “Pretty Bitch” and “I’m God.”
This was at Dem Passwords gallery, where such a happening turned out to be just a typical evening. The business was founded in 2010 by Sebastian Demian and Ethan Higbee in West Hollywood and moved to the West Adams neighborhood in late 2013. Demian serves as Lil B’s business partner (this is his term for their relationship, since he balks at the titles “manager” and “agent,” calling them “old industry”). In addition, Dem Passwords represents the artistic career of Lee “Scratch” Perry, the legendary Jamaican musician and producer whose work from as early as the 1960s is something of a precursor to the out-there theatrics of Lil B. Perry did enough LSD to start wearing outfits made out of broken mirrors; the chorus to one Lil B song, which has nearly 5 million views on YouTube, goes, “Martians (Ooh). Martians (Ooh). Martians (Ooh). Martians (Ooh).” Dem Passwords plays host to everything from painting exhibitions to comedy shows to outré musical performances—all connected through Demian, the L.A. art world’s link between contemporary art and something both weirder and more populist.
“I felt from the beginning that Dem Passwords was this luxurious thing that didn’t make much sense,” Demian told me. “How long could this last? Where does this make sense? But I try not to get too caught up in matters of what makes sense, because then fun flies out the window.”
Demian founded the gallery as a way of organizing a solo show of paintings, drawings, and video by Perry. In 2008, Higbee made a movie about the musician called The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry, which Demian assisted on. This led to a tour-management gig in which Demian found himself “in a position to try to preserve some of the artwork he was making, and enable it too,” meaning he’d keep paper and canvases handy in the hope that Perry would feel inspired. By 2010 he had amassed enough work for a show. Although it was Perry’s first proper exhibition, the man’s influence has rippled for decades outside of the recording studios where he has staked his legacy. “He was inspiring dudes like Basquiat, who was obsessed with Lee Perry, and it’s evident,” Higbee told me.
Dem Passwords has grown into an idiosyncratic collection of personalities, ranging from rising talent like Rachel Lord, a collaborator of Ryan Trecartin, to underground comic luminaries Ron Regé Jr. and Frank Santoro to enigmatic outliers including Jessica Ciocci (of the collective Paper Rad, whose work and social-media presence have for years been quietly influential to a younger generation of artists reared on the internet). Rock-star-turned-motivational-speaker Andrew W.K. played a confrontational set of piano music on the same bill as teenage rap group Pink Dollaz and experimental composer Jarrett Silberman. The former N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller is a regular at openings.
If the work on view at Dem Passwords is conceptually loose, the one constant is this stream of variously recognizable characters, operating with a creative freedom that often ignores more traditional systemic boundaries. Demian said he doesn’t “really leverage the Lil B energy so much in what we do for Dem Passwords,” but added, “I’m able to better understand him through my work with other artists. It helps inform a better understanding of what Lil B is doing and where it will go and where it can go or should go.”
Both adored and reviled by the hip-hop community, Lil B is arguably the most famous and eccentric unsigned rapper in America. Known for his staggeringly prolific output that is by turns surreal, offensive, and downright spiritual, he has racked up millions of YouTube views and earned a diverse and dedicated fan base that includes quite a few art-world admirers. In Brad Troemel’s essay “Athletic Aesthetics,” the artist attempts to define a new kind of cultural producer, one informed by the breakneck speed of content production and consumption on the Internet. He singles out Lil B, with his brand of “based” delivery (one-take, stream-of-consciousness freestyle rap that resembles abstract poetry more than rap-in-earnest), as an example of an artist adapting his practice to suit the flow of the net and in turn building a massive, freewheeling aesthetic that allows the audience to become aggregator, curator, and participant. Rap, contemporary art, avant-garde music—if at first Demian’s curatorial interests seem disparate, there is a sense of freedom that ties it together.
“It’s a rebel energy that I’m excited about,” Demian said, “people who are willing to go against the grain, and willing to do things that fall outside the narrow range of acceptability. The artists I have a kinship with are the ones who are maybe shooting from the sidelines, but are still part of the mainstream conversation.” The Dem Passwords stable of artists comprises people who have one foot in contemporary art and the other in something else.
Demian himself is both an art dealer and, in his words, “a fan, but in a higher-order sense.” In conversation, he proselytizes the “Lil B entertainment experience.” He talks up the genius of Perry and his importance in shaping the gallery (the name Dem Passwords comes from Perry’s writing). Demian speaks with a gusto that brings to mind a boxing promoter with a New Age bent and a particularly friendly relationship with his fighters.
“Of all the galleries in L.A., the only one that didn’t conflict with my value system and had enough respect for the artist is Dem Passwords,” said Lord, whose debut solo show, “Documental,” appeared at the gallery last summer and featured paintings created for Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s newest video production. “Conversations with Sebastian were formative for me at a time when I was trying to figure out how much shit to take from people.
“I don’t know anyone who gives as much respect to the artist to do what they want to do,” she added.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 34 under the title “Rebel Energy.”