St. Louis Joes: Vega Heartbreak
He’s told the tale a million times.
“All right so you wanna know how I did the rally song?” Orlando Rowe, 25, more commonly known as Vega Heartbreak, says as he breaks into a wide grin, attempting to lean back on a stiff black metal chair outside of a Starbucks in downtown Webster Groves. He’s dressed plainly: white T-shirt and black pants, paling in comparison to his personal success in the story he’s about to tell.
Vega begins to talk about his song and YouTube video, now with over 200,000 hits, and the polished tale unfolds flawlessly. The story begins in his mother’s, Mary Valerie-Richardson’s, living room. Rowe visited his mom one evening during the 2011 Cardinals playoff run. After watching the Redbirds dismantle the Brewers, he started fooling around on his mobile studio, laying down a beat to a song about the Cardinals.
Waking up the next day, he added his voice to the song. The production took only a few hours and, when finished, Rowe sent the tape off to DJ Cuddy, a radio personality at 104.1 FM (click to the web site).
The rest is history. Within the next two days, the “Go Cards Rally Song” went viral, trended on Twitter and landed Vega all over the St. Louis media scene. The song also aired on 107.7 FM and inspired a music video—which, because of the rapid popularity, features Vega in clothes he bought that day and a hat fresh with its stickers on it.
Vega performed outside of Busch Stadium before Game Six of the 2011 World Series. A day later, the Cardinals won the Fall Classic, and the correlation between the song and the Cards success has often been disputed. The night the Cardinals won it all, Vega said he partied with David Freese, Jason Motte and other Cardinals. It was then he realized his career had started to take off.
He’s told the story a million times before. The song itself is recognizable as the Cardinals themselves that year. But there is a tale he hasn’t recounted: his life leading up to the song and where his success has taken him since.
Started from the bottom
To understand Rowe, you must understand his hard-working and passionate demeanor which his mother, a single parent, undoubtedly rubbed off on him at a young age, as she worked two jobs to support her large family. Rowe, the fifth child out of seven brothers and sisters, grew up in University City off Kempland Place. Valerie-Richardson didn’t want her children growing up in the city and attending city schools, which forced her to work tirelessly to keep her house in U-City.
“My mother was such a strong woman; it seemed like she made it easy for us,” Rowe said.
His father, Orlando Rowe, spent time in and out of jail throughout his son’s childhood. When Rowe turned nine, his father started a 14-year prison sentence for armed robbery. Rowe said there was little to no communication between his father and his family during his time in jail.
Although his dad wasn’t around to play catch, Rowe said he quickly fell in love with baseball. He idolized 90s Cardinals from Willie McGee to Fernando Tatis to Matt Morris, memorizing all the stats of his favorite stars. His dream was to play in the Majors.
He started playing in leagues around U-City at the age of five. Rowe said he had a strong arm, so his coaches slotted him on the left side of the field at shortstop, third base and left field. Baseball, though, is an expensive sport, and his family didn’t have enough money for equipment. But Rowe said his coaches helped him out.
“I was so good, I never had to pay,” he said.
Going into middle school, a new passion, music, started to compete with baseball. His older brother, artist Bradd Young, built a studio in his house and invited Rowe over to experiment with the equipment. Skipping baseball games to go to his brother’s house, Rowe, originally a producer, burned CDs of his beats and passed them out to his friends.
Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nas started pushing out the names of McGee and Tatis in his mind and, although he played for University City High School, Rowe admits he played baseball just to pass the time. In between working jobs at The Palace roller skating rink and at St. Luke’s Hospital washing dishes, he started to add his voice to his beats. His first album, “Hidden Talents,” was handed out to his to his friends; the piece was lauded for its production but criticized for its flow, the rhythms and rhymes of the song’s lyrics.
His name, “Vega Heartbreak,” was developed during this time. “Vega” was used in tribute to Rowe’s favorite character in the video game Street Fighter and “Heartbreak” comes from his high school heartthrob past, Rowe said. His biggest supporter was his cousin, Aaron Watson, who recognized his talent and, when Rowe was 17, wanted to be his manager.
“I didn’t even know what a manager was back then,” Rowe said.
Rowe said he can sort of relate to Kanye West, a rap and production artist who dropped out of college to pursue music. After two years attending NorthPark Vatterott College, Rowe earned his associate’s degree in electrical engineering. Like Kanye, he stopped attending school and started messing around with his music. To earn a living, he cleaned cars at Enterprise Rent-A-Car near Lambert Airport.
The hard-working Rowe found success quickly. Within a year, Enterprise named him manager of the car washers.
“I was telling 60-year-olds what to do,” Rowe said.
His life changed while he was scrubbing rental cars. His manager knew Demetrius “Kinky B” Ellerbee who was the manager of Young Jeezy, a very successful rapper. Kinky B liked what he heard from Rowe’s production and began flying Rowe from St. Louis to Atlanta every weekend to work on Jeezy’s new album.
Rowe said Jeezy loved his production and actually made several songs with Vega Heartbreak. Unfortunately, Kinky B and Jeezy experienced a falling out (the artist and manager are currently embroiled in a $5 million lawsuit) and Heartbreak’s songs didn’t pan out on the new album.
The loss hurt Rowe deeply. He thought the album would be his big break into the rap industry. Dejected, Rowe left his car, clothes and television in Atlanta and never came back to pick them up.
“I bought a flight and got out of there,” Rowe said. “I just wanted to start new.”
Not giving up
Rowe was in a nadir, but his hard-working attitude lifted him from his rut. When he arrived back home in 2011, he immediately looked for work on Craigslist. Rowe landed a job as a janitor at St. Gerard Majella, a Catholic grade school at Ballas and Dougherty Ferry in Kirkwood. His work started at 4:30 p.m. every day, mindlessly cleaning linoleum floors and metallic water fountains.
In his free time, Rowe continued to work on his music. Then, in October, Rowe created the “Go Cardinals” song, which rapidly found popularity. After visiting several television stations one morning to promote his new song, he realized his days as a janitor were over.
“I’m thinking to myself as I’m cleaning—as I’m mopping a floor—is this really real? Then I see a kid running down the hallway, and the teacher almost had to pull him off me. Then I (thought), ‘Yeah, I can’t do this anymore,’” Rowe said.
Rowe quit his job and started riding the wave of success off his song. Because he wasn’t signed with a major label, Rowe didn’t make any royalties off his song getting played on the radio. However, Rowe said he uploaded his song on iTunes, which was where he made money. After the World Series, he started visiting schools, including St. Gerard, to tell kids his message of never giving up on their dreams.
“That (song) helped me gain so many fans,” he said.
In between school visits, he started working on his next album, “Small City, Big Dreams,” which he dropped last year. He plans to release his next album “Student Loans” this August. Currently, Rowe is also working with Akon and Nelly in production of their new albums while touring around the country. He performed with Nelly on Aug. 2 in Poplar Bluff.
Rowe said he doesn’t know where he wants to go with his rap career and said that, after losing everything in Atlanta, he doesn’t put faith in things he can’t control anymore. Instead, he’s just focusing on his passion for music.
“I don’t even want to be famous,” Rowe said. “I just want to inspire somebody to let you know you can do anything in the world…Most famous people are broke. I’d rather have a cult following, have millions of dollars in the bank and wear white T-shirts.”