The Mouth That Roared

Nando Mondragon is going to put Denver on the hip-hop fashion map. But first, he has to get out of jail.

All of the couches in DC10 are white leather. But the couch in the middle of the nightclub is the only one shaped like a circle. Inside that circle sits a table, and on the last Wednesday of December, on that table sat some expensive champagne. Several Denver Nuggets were celebrating Kenyon Martin’s birthday, and the circular VIP chill spot was reserved for the birthday boy’s closest friends, with a burgundy rope separating them from the rest of the party.

All night long, women in tight clothes and big earrings paraded by, hoping to make eye contact with one of the ball players. They surrounded the couch like white surrounds snow, looking over each other’s shoulders, watching for passing superstars. “There go Carmelo,” one woman told another, who whipped her head to look.

Although it was Martin’s birthday and Carmelo Anthony was indeed in the house, the biggest buzz was over the newest Nugget, Allen Iverson, making one of his first appearances on the Mile High club scene.

Ten years later, his interests were more expensive.
Ten years later, his interests were more expensive.
As a young teen, Nando Mondragon was into lowrider bikes.
As a young teen, Nando Mondragon was into lowrider bikes.

It was four days before New Year’s Eve, four days before Denver Bronco Darrent Williams was shot to death just a few blocks away and everyone was reminded that fame does not stop bullets.

But at DC10, everyone was feeling invincible. They laughed when Just Jay, a Denver finalist on America’s Funniest Mom, joked about how many millions of dollars’ worth of Nugget dick was in the room for the ladies. And if the Nuggets weren’t already thuggish enough, she joked, with Iverson on the team they could count on leading the league in tats as well as stats.

People in the crowd were wearing baseball caps and fur coats, sneakers and jumpsuits, and diamonds — lots of diamonds, on their necks, ears, fingers and wrists. A few of them were even sporting diamonds over their teeth, on customized “grills” of diamonds and gold. But no one’s grill was brighter or had more bling than that of Nando “Yeyo” Mondragon.

Nando is trying to make a name for himself as the man who can satisfy the most luxurious of hip-hop fashion desires. At his shop on East Colfax Avenue, he sells grills, custom sneakers and several clothing lines, including his own. The birthday boy and others at the party were Nando’s customers, and he worked the room, hoping to make more connections.

Nando was his own best advertisement. In addition to the diamond-studded grill, he was sporting the freshest of gear from his shop and rocking custom kicks on his feet. But with all the bling in the crowd, Nando decided he had to go for the big guns. So he left DC10 and walked across the street to his girlfriend’s luxury apartment in the Beauvallon, where he’d left a $22,000 necklace made from white gold with diamonds in the shape of the crown-like logo he’d designed for his shop and clothing line, Certified Customs.

Nando and his girlfriend dug through drawers and ripped through the closet, but they couldn’t find the necklace. “This is going to be hard to recover from,” Nando said. Anger management doesn’t come as easy as style.

I may not rap... not a dj... haven’t hit up walls in a few years... and my b-boy skillz are rustier than that old Impala I had in the backyard for ten years. But I know all four elements of this Hip Hop formula and have dipped into all four. So Imma use that knowledge and apply that to sparkin somethin... —from Nando’s MySpace page

Nando grew up in southwest Denver, in a working-class neighborhood. It wasn’t the suburbs, but it was pretty free of drugs and graffiti. One day in 1994, when Nando was twelve, he saw a kid who’d just moved from California cruise by on a lowrider bicycle. Nando watched in awe. He had to have one.

At the time, only one shop in town sold lowrider bikes — and it only had one in stock, plus a few spare parts. Nando begged his father to take him there so that he could see the bike and dream away a Sunday looking at the lowrider catalogue. But the shop owner quickly tired of kids coming in and never buying anything.

“He was treating them like they were dirt, like he was better than them,” remembers Nando’s father, Santiago Mondragon.

Santiago owned a custom framing shop on Santa Fe Drive. Although he didn’t have much extra money, he invested a couple thousand dollars in lowrider bike parts and a couple of bikes, and dedicated a room in his shop to them. If nothing else, he figured the shop would be a way to keep Nando and his friends off the streets after school. But soon after, the other bike shop went out of business.

“Black kids, white kids, Chicano kids — they’re all good kids, and they’re my customers, not their parents, so I treated them with respect,” Santiago recalls. “We learned everything as we went. I didn’t even know there were lowrider bikes, and before we knew it, I was Colorado’s expert on lowrider bikes. It turned out to actually be a business that could make money.”

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