"Make good choices."
That's been Mike Venable's fatherly mantra, his protective plea when he says goodbye to his four sons.
They mostly have obeyed those wise words, all turning out to be upstanding young men. Three of them have conventional jobs. Adam, however, contradicted his white, middle-class upbringing and became a rapper, making a name for himself in a predominantly black, anti-establishment music genre. In the industry, he is known as Obeah (West Indies folk magic, pronounced "Obey") -- but he disobeyed his dad's vision for his future.
Now, however, they can celebrate this Father's Day knowing that Mike followed his own advice. Humbled by beating back cancer, he embraced Adam's career choice after initially questioning it.
And that choice has made both of them proud, not only because Adam signed this spring a potentially lucrative contract with the leader of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rap group, but also because the father and son have enriched their relationship by seeking to appreciate each other.
"It's truly heartwarming," Adam said. "I feel like he's definitely much more accepting and understanding of my lifestyle and perspective these days. And at the end of the day, that's really what it's all about, right? Peace, love and understanding of all people and their differences."
"I was wrong," Mike admitted, then repeated, "I was wrong. And boy, am I glad that I was wrong, because it's given him an exciting life, a bona fide bucket-list-like life for him, and probably the ability to make a living doing it, too."
"I was wrong. And boy, am I glad that I was wrong, because it's given him an exciting life, a bona fide bucket-list-like life for him, and probably the ability to make a living doing it, too."
Lesson from cancer
Mike, 62, was diagnosed six years ago with stage 4 renal cell carcinoma, kidney cancer. He persevered through 15 months of oral chemotherapy. A rare procedure hospitalized him and failed, but his doctor told him, "If this cancer wanted you, it would have had you already." Now, the only treatments he receives are monthly injections and quarterly scans.
"The fact that I'm even here is a big deal," he said. "I don't know how to be other than thankful."
Mike and his wife, Jill, are co-publishers of the magazines Columbus and the Valley, Valley Parent and an online venture for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police. In their blended family, they raised four sons: Christopher Riddle and Nicholas Riddle work at TSYS, and Michael Venable works at CareerBuilder.com.
As for Adam, 31, Mike envisioned him becoming a lawyer.
"He was always into music, but I never saw that coming as a potential career option," Mike said. "I thought he should be an attorney because he's such a good arguer. He's extremely opinionated about everything. Of course, I am, too."
During his 20 years of marriage with Jill, Mike has been the stern parent. He insisted on knowing where the boys were, even when they lived out of town, and he didn't rest well until he knew they were safe.
Such caution came from his childhood. Growing up near the Columbus airport, Mike's buddies biked the 6 miles from West Britt David Road to Flat Rock Park, but his parents wouldn't let him go.
"What I want for Adam in particular, but all of our sons," Mike said, "is for them to not be so cautious, to absolutely rear back and go at it."
He learned that from cancer.
"That's part of what's coursing through my mind with Adam," he said. "I'm thinking about all of the potential dangers for him as a young man. I want him to be cautious enough, but I really want him to explore and go hard."
Adam attended Clubview Elementary, Richards Middle and Hardaway High. The first hip-hop song he remembers hearing was "Bust a Move" by Young MC, which won the 1990 Grammy for Best Rap Performance. He also enjoyed listening to MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice and C+C Music Factory, along with A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Busta Rhymes.
"I kind of just gravitated toward it," he said. "I would sit and listen to the songs and mimicked the way they rapped."
Adam remembers his father playing a lot of loud music in the house, but it was mostly classic rock.
"He hated rap," Adam said with a laugh. "He didn't like the culture. He didn't like the negativity in the lyrics and the curse words."
But at least Adam favored the kind of hip-hop called conscious rap. Although it still contains foul language sometimes, the lyrics advocate mostly constructive social change, not the often violent images in gangsta rap.
Adam began playing trumpet and bass guitar in fifth grade. He started a Nirvana cover band with a few friends, so he dropped the trumpet and kept playing guitar in high school. Then he bought turntables.
At school one day, a friend said, "Dude, I heard you're a really good DJ," and Adam thought, "Oh, boy. Now, I've got to figure out how to use these turntables."
He taught himself through trial and error. He bought vinyl online and from the now-closed Flip Side Records on Victory Drive. He was the disc jockey at parties for friends.
The first show Adam played in Atlanta was at The Masquerade the summer after he graduated from Hardaway in 2002. He was in a rap group called Def Touch.
"I wasn't one of those kids that was like, 'Ooh, we could make money doing this,'" Adam said. "It was all about fun with my friends, and I wanted to be skillful at it."
Ultimately, however, this mix didn't feel right. The raps they played weren't the mild stuff his father allowed; they were off the CDs that came with the parental advisory stickers. So he left that debut thinking, "This was the end of an era for me. If I ever do anything serious, it's going to represent who I am."
Adam attended Kennesaw State University and studied marketing for 1½ years until that direction didn't feel right either. He called his dad and said he wanted to leave college and pursue a career in the music business.
Jill tried to get Mike to listen more than question, but he turned to her and asked, "What is he doing?"
"He was definitely upset," Adam said. "It's hard to see the full scope of things when your kid is just not doing what you want him to do."
Looking back, Mike said, "It wasn't that I didn't approve of it; I didn't understand it. I wanted him to do that as a sideline. I wanted him to finish college and to have a career and let that be a nice hobby for him."
The son understood the father's misunderstanding.
"Without that concept," Adam said, "there was no way to visualize how I would be successful in it."
Instead of discouraging Adam, his dad's reluctance motivated him.
"Anyone who ever did anything great or achieved their dreams had to deal with people telling them they were crazy first," Adam said.
So he attended The Art Institute of Atlanta for a degree in audio, but he lasted there less than a year. Although he was interested in the subject, several friends already had jobs in music and one told him he didn't have to pay $50,000 for a degree to work in the industry. He said he could learn just by being a studio rat.
Adam worked in restaurants while studying, practicing rap and searching for that studio chance.
His girlfriend at the time introduced him to Lucas Ogden, who was a member of Social Espionage. They started a group called ContraVerse in 2006 and performed together for six years. They played in Atlanta clubs and for activist events.
ContraVerse collaborated with rapper Gift of Gab, from the group Blackalicious, on a song in the album "Innoculate," and DJ Lord of Public Enemy scratched on another track. Adam then met DJ Lord at the Atlanta club MJQ in 2008.
"He was just always an advocate of ours," Adam said. "For whatever reason, we were the group he mentioned in interviews and decided to collaborate with."
It was the stamp of approval Adam needed from a legit performer.
"It was amazing," he said. "It was insane. He was very upfront about the fact that having Public Enemy's name on that would help us out a lot, and he encouraged us to exploit that."
But their independent recordings weren't commercial successes.
"The reality of it is that, unless you're paying the right PR firm or you have somebody who's really just willing to work their ass off for this, nobody's going to hear it," he said. "You're just throwing rocks in the ocean."
A pivotal moment in this father-son relationship came while Adam visited Mike and Jill in their Seale, Ala., home.
Mike asked Adam to walk with him to the barn in the backyard. There, the father showed the son his record collection. Adam carefully flipped through the several hundred albums, from the smooth sounds of Herbie Hancock to the rough riffs of The Who, and Mike told him, "They're yours."
Adam teared up. More than parting with the valuable vinyl that both knew the budding DJ would end up scratching, the gesture was Mike's way of saying, "I'm behind you."
And the father realized his son was going on this journey even without his blessing. The only questions were how Mike would react and how they would relate because of that reaction.
"I was either going to be a part of it," he said, "or I was going to be on the outside looking in."
Adam expressed his appreciation for the support from his whole family in his 2009 rap called "The Meaning" off the album "Not Your Brother's Boom Bap" with his former group The Contraverse:
"'I've been observing this world now for a quarter of a century
And trust me, there is nothing worth more than what you've meant to me
I'll never get to say it 'cause this language won't convey it
The reason that I'm writing and I stay so motivated
I'm working hard to show you I'm achieving all my dreams
Even if we have a different idea of what that means
It seems our perception of things is candy covered
We'll see eye to eye once we understand each other."
Adam toured with Social Espionage in 2010. He booked most of the dates through cold calls and emails. They played across the country in 28 days.
"Oh, my God, it was incredible," he said. "I could write a movie about that trip. It was a wild ride."
They got paid for a few gigs, but expenses ate up the proceeds. And the son guessed the father was thinking, "He's a kid. He's going to have fun, but he's going to realize this is stupid."
Their relationship remained loving even while Mike adjusted to Adam's path. No strain. No drama. But still questions.
Adam would call and excitedly tell Mike, "We did a gig!" And the father would ask, "Well, was that a paying gig?" While the upstart rapper was grateful for the exposure and chance to hone his skills in front of a crowd, the concerned parent was worried about his son's bank account and safety.
Mike also encouraged Adam to keep his Obeah persona separate from his real identity, especially on social media, "because a lot of his posts are angry posts about the way someone has been treated. Then if this cools off, you can walk away from it. It's not tied to Adam. He didn't listen to any of that, because he's honest, he's deeply honest about his feelings, and he doesn't apologize for having those feelings."
Adam chooses to be authentic.
"He doesn't have any tattoos; he doesn't have any piercings," Mike said. "He's a traditional-looking guy in a very untraditional world."
Adam is more blunt in his assessment: "I'm a weirdo. I don't have that normal hip-hop look, if there is one."
In 2013, a month or two after ContraVerse broke up, DJ Lord invited Adam to collaborate with him. After exchanging beats and raps via email, DJ Lord left for an international tour, and Adam thought the chance he sought had flown away.
"Biggest thing ever'
Figuring he needed and deserved a vacation, Adam also flew away. He took his girlfriend to see friends and wine country in California. As they traveled along the coast, Adam noticed on Instagram that DJ Lord was going to California to record music with Public Enemy leader Chuck D. Adam texted DJ Lord where he just so happened to be, and DJ Lord texted back that Chuck D welcomed him to join them in his Ventura studio.
Chuck D explained in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer, "I suggested to DJ Lord since I don't have the time to be lead MC on his album, why not have Obeah take it?"
"This was like the biggest thing ever," Adam said.
Although he was star struck, Adam managed to remember the raps he wrote for DJ Lord's beats. So from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., while his girlfriend slept in a chair, Adam recorded two raps with the rap legends, "Mass Distractionville" and "GTFO," and began a third, "World Citizen," which they finished via email. Those songs are on DJ Lord's album "Eat the Rat," which was released in December.
Chuck D is impressed with Adam's "sharp, precise vocals, razor-like tone and enormous wit. He chops vocals like sushi."
Adam was "unbelievably stoked" from the session.
"It's hard doing normal day-to-day things after you do something like that."
But instead of believing he had made it in music, he felt compelled to work harder.
That led to Mike attending Adam's first major show this past January in the standing room only Atlanta nightclub called Aisle 5. With F-bombs in his ears and marijuana haze in his eyes, the father watched his son's psychedelic rap group, The Difference Machine, in a mash-up with Chuck D and DJ Lord.
Mike said of Adam, "When he's on stage and he's doing those raps, he is bearing his emotional soul up there. He oozes confidence. I don't know how he does it."
"It was like the coolest thing that ever happened to me," Adam said. "I'd been working, paying dues. In that moment, I had people who for years I thought had no respect for me coming up to me."
The father advised the son, "When you're on the stage with all these people, you are the most different one of the bunch. Therefore, you might get more attention. You're an anomaly. You're an outlier. So make use of that. Throw your talent out there and know that you might be the one most people are looking at."
In his blog, Mike wrote, "After seeing this show, I know Adam is on a straight up trajectory toward something great. I couldn't be prouder of him. I can't wait to see what will happen next as long as I don't have to go see it."
The prediction was prescient.
In March, Chuck D, through his label SPITdigital Recordings, co-owned by Gary G Wiz, offered Adam an artist's agreement to release three albums.
Chuck D said Adam "eclectically stands out. It's what SPITdigital Recordings looks for, different, outside-the-norm artists."
Adam signed the contract after consulting with a lawyer.
"He has proven to me, clearly, that his strategy of making a name for himself for free has been a really good move for him," Mike said. "I would not ever doubt him again when it comes to his direction."
Although the contract doesn't come with a 401(k), the son eases his father's worry by having a backup plan. Adam became a certified sommelier in 2011 and works as a bartender at The Painted Pin in Atlanta.
"I have enough experience and knowledge to have an excellent career in the wine industry at this point," Adam said. " So, not all of my eggs are in one basket financially."
Public Enemy is promoting Adam as a solo artist through appearances at their shows. In April, Adam performed three raps before Public Enemy played for 6,000 fans at the Pepsi Center in Mexico City.
"That was invaluable," he said.
Last month, Adam performed as a guest with Public Enemy in Napa Valley, Calif., where he combined his two passions: rap and wine.
"It was an incredible experience," he said. "A much larger crowd than Mexico, and I got to visit the winery I worked at years ago. Definitely a dream come true."
Next, he hopes to tag along with Public Enemy in November, when they tour Europe with The Prodigy. By then, he expects his first album to be released.
'I know I'm good'
Adam believed in his talent and work ethic. He also trusted the oxymoron of methodical serendipity: providing himself enough chances to be in the right place at the right time.
"I know I'm good at this," he said. "I know that people who are really good at what they do in music, a lot of them don't ever get any recognition, and a lot of people who are terrible get tons of recognition. So I can't sit and think, 'I'm going to succeed at this,' but it's something that I love to do, and I'm always going to try."
"The fact that this lightning bolt happened for him -- 99 percent of the people don't get that lightning bolt -- so that still doesn't make it a good idea that you're doing all this stuff for free," Mike said. "Don't give away what you sell.
"But he had a plan in mind, and that so worked for him. It totally worked. He got himself in a situation where he ended up in a recording studio with arguably one of the most noted hip-hop artists of all time."
Chuck D cautioned about Adam, "Well, we are a long ways from success. We are open-minded. We also look to abolish stereotypes -- race, age, gender. We look to bend in the genre of hip-hop and rap music."
Echoing the title of one of Adam's songs, Chuck D said this unlikely rapper "strives to be a 'World Citizen' and he is looking to touch the planet with his music but never forget his roots."
All of which wows the father.
"This has been a big, emotional trip for me," Mike said. " I didn't understand how big this was,"
He used to struggle to explain what Adam was doing when the inevitable update on children was the topic of conversation. Now, he has a good story to tell about Adam.
Mike beamed as he recalled someone overhearing him at a restaurant when he mentioned that Adam performed with Public Enemy. The person wondered aloud, "Are you kidding me?"
"It's given me more street cred, which is kind of fun," Mike said with a smile.
Adam praised his father's turnaround.
"I personally feel like these sort of changes in perspective usually only come when you really take stock of what's important in your life," he said. " My dad is a survivor of stage 4 kidney cancer, so I'm sure he's had his fair share of epiphanies at this point. I hate that it took cancer to make it happen, but it is something that seriously makes me sleep better at night and helps fulfill my life."
Mike uses this anecdote to sum up what he has learned from joining Adam's joyful ride instead of asking him to slow down: When he saw Adam's girlfriend washing clothes during a recent visit, she didn't measure the laundry detergent. She just relied on her judgment and poured it in.
"I'm never going to measure again," Mike said with a laugh. "It's more of a happy, organic kind of life, not so much bounded by measurement and statistics."
It's a metaphor Mike extends to his fathering style now.
"Faith and trust are important," he said. "I wish that for any father-and-son relationship, to do the best job you can to rear that child and know that when they fly off on their own, they can make good decisions and do the right thing."
In his song "We Are Kings" with the group Wake, off the album "Strangers in a Strange Land," to be released in August, Obeah wrote this lyric: "Downing daily dosages of poisons / A victim of circumstance, but mostly it's the choices."
Adam described the message in that lyric this way: "That we must make good decisions and those decisions will define our character, but to take into consideration the perspective of other people. Understanding that some people are victims of circumstances we may have never experienced helps us connect with others who we may not agree with. This is a challenging thing for most people. Many of us have this burning desire to 'stand up for what we believe in,' which is important, but sometimes gets in the way of peace. Like most things in life, it's a balance."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.