The Mouth That Roared
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 Martins birthday, and the circular VIP chill spot was reserved for the birthday boys 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 others shoulders, watching for passing superstars. There go Carmelo, one woman told another, who whipped her head to look.
Although it was Martins 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.
It was four days before New Years 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 Americas Funniest Mom, joked about how many millions of dollars worth of Nugget dick was in the room for the ladies. And if the Nuggets werent 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 ones 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 Nandos 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 girlfriends luxury apartment in the Beauvallon, where hed left a $22,000 necklace made from white gold with diamonds in the shape of the crown-like logo hed designed for his shop and clothing line, Certified Customs.
Nando and his girlfriend dug through drawers and ripped through the closet, but they couldnt find the necklace. This is going to be hard to recover from, Nando said. Anger management doesnt come as easy as style.
I may not rap... not a dj... havent 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 Nandos MySpace page
Nando grew up in southwest Denver, in a working-class neighborhood. It wasnt the suburbs, but it was pretty free of drugs and graffiti. One day in 1994, when Nando was twelve, he saw a kid whod 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 Nandos father, Santiago Mondragon.
Santiago owned a custom framing shop on Santa Fe Drive. Although he didnt 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 theyre all good kids, and theyre my customers, not their parents, so I treated them with respect, Santiago recalls. We learned everything as we went. I didnt even know there were lowrider bikes, and before we knew it, I was Colorados expert on lowrider bikes. It turned out to actually be a business that could make money.
The shop became the local hangout. Santiago laid some linoleum over the carpeting so the kids had a spot to breakdance.
As the lowrider crew moved from junior high to West High School, Nando grew more interested in fashion and graffiti art. He adopted the tag Yeyo not because it referred to cocaine, but because he liked how the letters looked. And just as he never got into drugs, Nando says he never got into gangs, either. It was always just stupid to me, to be willing to die for a neighborhood or a color, he says.
But he did get into guns. Nando got his first weapon, a .357, back when he was just thirteen or fourteen. Nando says he thought he needed it for protection, although carrying it created more problems for him. He got into shoplifting, too.
Nando always wanted the freshest gear, and he really wanted some Tommy Hilfiger. But all his father could afford to give him for school clothes was $100. A hundred dollars, Nando remembers thinking. That wont even cover the shoes Im looking at.
Nando started using the five-finger discount. As a teenager, he was arrested several times for stealing, graffiti and fighting. Those extracurricular activities continued through his junior year, when he transferred to South High and played football. They continued after his parents split up, and he stayed with his father in the house where hed grown up. And they continued while he became a certified welder, working after school.
About a month after he turned sixteen, Nando was cruising through Littleton with some friends when they got into an altercation with another carload of teens. Nando got out of the car and hit one of the guys in the face several times. The guy he punched called the cops and reported that Nando had beaten him with a flashlight. Nando denied using a flashlight but admitted to hitting the guy. He was charged with assault, but the case was eventually dropped.
The day after he turned eighteen, Nando was caught with a 9mm gun. He pleaded guilty to a prohibited-weapons charge and was sentenced to a year of probation and 45 days of detention in the county jail.
Nando had graduated from high school by February 2001, when he went with a friend and both of their girlfriends to Las Vegas. They were rolling down Las Vegas Boulevard in Nandos Ford Expedition, arguing with some guys in a maroon van, when one of the guys threw a bottle at Nandos SUV. Nando followed the van past the Excalibur and Luxor hotels, hoping the van would stop and they could fight, but the van kept moving. When the vehicles got to Mandalay Bay, Nando fired two shots at the van. One hit a passenger in the mouth.
Eighteen-year-old Nando was booked into the Clark County Detention Center for attempted murder. He made bail and returned to Colorado but was picked up by the Broomfield police for price-switching the following month. By the time he returned to Las Vegas for a hearing, hed picked up three more assault charges in Colorado.
Nandos father drove with him to Vegas. In an effort to look like hed cleaned up his act, Nando wore khakis and dress shoes to court. But the judge wasnt fooled; the Nevada authorities were well aware of Nandos activities in Colorado. He was sentenced to between two and fifteen years in prison, and sent there in his dress shoes and slacks.
If I would have known, Nando says, Id have gone out and got some Jordans and an all-blue outfit, and a fitted cap without a logo, and a nice watch and a necklace with a cross on it, because they let you keep most of that stuff. He could have used it in prison.
Being incarcerated saved my life... and Im not ashamed to talk to people about that time in my life because I believe deeply that if I never paid for that mistake I would not be on this earth today.
Santiago Mondragon was devastated when he first heard that Nando had been arrested in Vegas. Attempted murder, what? Attempted murder? This cant be real, he remembers thinking. This is a nightmare.
Santiago had gone to jail himself a couple of times for drunken brawling when he was young, but never prison. Hed grown up in Pueblo and lived in a two-bedroom house with his parents and five siblings. After high school, he moved to Denver and into a Capitol Hill apartment with some buddies. Eight years later, he got married. Nando was his third child, his first and only son. Santiago promised himself that his kids would have a better life and more opportunity than hed ever had.
And even after Nando got locked up, Santiago stuck by him. Once a month, Pops would drive to Nevada. Hed arrive late Wednesday night and visit Nando on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The two would talk all day. Visitors were allowed to bring in twenty bucks worth of quarters for vending-machine delicacies; they could also bring in three sealed packs of smokes, which Nando used as currency on the inside. But he soon had a new source of income: He got a job fighting wildfires on a prison crew. He also had a new interest that kept him in smokes: customizing shoes.
Prisoners were issued Chuck Taylor ripoffs called Bob Barkers (and not connected to the game-show host, contrary to common prison lore) and made of plain canvas. One day when he was bored, Nando grabbed a couple of markers and started drawing the Denver skyline on a pair. He wound up spending five days on the project, then started asking new inmates if he could customize their sneakers with a design representing their name, their neighborhood, their gang, whatever they wanted. His reputation as a shoe designer grew.
The reputation helped him create his own niche. Nando calls himself Hispanic and says when he was growing up, all of his friends who werent brown were black and all the black kids acted just like the Hispanic kids. In prison, an unwritten rule held that you stuck to your own kind, but Nando would break that rule and sneak away to kick it with some of the black inmates. Youre not supposed to associate with the black guys at all, he remembers. No smoking with them, no drinking with them, no gambling with them, no hooking up their kicks, no haircuts from them. But they were the only ones who cut my hair like I like. And they liked his shoe designs.
Nando liked his own customized Bob Barkers so much that he rarely wore them, except during the occasional handball game. But he still needed some around-the-cell shoes and wasnt about to put the dress shoes back on. Inmates could order clothes from a catalogue through the prison; visitors arent allowed to bring in clothes. But Nando asked his father to wear a pair of size fourteen Ken Griffey Jr. sneakers the next time he visited so that he could switch them for the dress shoes under the table.
I wear a size ten, Santiago remembers. Nando is a size fourteen, so I was flopping around in these big shoes, and we switched under the table. I was real nervous that wed get caught and Id lose my visiting rights.
But he didnt, and Nando was on to a new hobby. He customized fifty or sixty pairs of Bob Barkers for inmates. And he had plenty of time to work on them, because his first three attempts to gain parole were denied. My mindset was prison, prison, prison, Nando says. I thought I was never getting out. Guards encouraged that mindset, and he tried not to think about what he would do if he were free. He didnt want to get his hopes up.
The Nevada Department of Corrections finally released Nando at the end of 2004. Although two of his assault cases had been dismissed while he was in prison, Jefferson County had him shipped there so that he could be tried on another assault case. His parole was transferred to the custody of Colorado as well.
When Nando found out that he was eligible for parole in Jeffco, he didnt even try to get out. Instead, he went upstairs and went to sleep. I was tired of asking people for help, he says. Everyone did so much for me when I was in there.
Nando didnt know he had a cousin in the Jefferson County Jail. But that cousin spotted Nando and called his father, who called Santiago, who came to bail out his son. They went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and Nando couldnt take his eyes off of the steak knife on the table. He started shaking. I was like, Im going to take that, he remembers.
Santiago noticed other changes in his son. He wore shoes into the shower. He wouldnt eat meat off the bone. And he used a lot of toilet paper. Worried about his plumbing, Santiago asked about that, and Nando explained that on the inside, everyone uses a lot of toilet paper because it wastes more of the states money.
But more than anything, Santiago noticed that his son had grown up.
Im kind of tough, but I dont know if I could make it in prison, Santiago says. But Nando, hes really tough. He went in a boy and came out a man.
As much as life on the inside had changed Nando, life on the outside had changed, too. The friend whod been with him when he caught his case in Vegas had died in a car crash. And although the last Jeffco case was dropped, Nando didnt know what to do with himself. It was like I was stuck in 2001, he says. He was living with his father in his childhood home, driving the same car, wearing the same clothes, working in the same welding shop hed worked in during high school. But he lost that job pretty quickly for talking and text-messaging on his phone. Next he drove a dump truck, but that was boring. He applied for a couple other stupid little jobs, but nothing stuck.
He decided to go into business for himself and started bouncing ideas off his father. He thought about a cell-phone shop, but most of the companies refused to give a contract to an ex-con, and the ones that would deal with an ex-con wanted him to jump through way too many hoops. Finally, he decided to see if he could make a living from fashion.
Nando and his father redesigned the framing store so that Nando could set up shop there as Certified Customs. He used money from the dump-truck gig to contract with a couple of clothing lines and get some custom shoes, then opened for business in March 2006. But the majority of his work came from customizing shoes, and most of those customers did their business online. Its to the point that anybody who has money is wearing those all the time, Nando says. All the awards shows, the concerts, rappers and stuff, theyre all wearing custom shoes. Eventually, everyone else will pick up on it. Theres a lot of other people who are doing it. Colorado is just a little behind.
And then he expanded his business to include grills.
Rappers like Public Enemys Flavor Flav were sporting grills as much as twenty years ago; Nando had fallen in love with gold teeth while watching Wu-Tang Clan videos back in the early 90s. On a trip to Mexico, he tried to see if he could get some golden fangs like those of Method Man, but the Mexicans couldnt make him a removable pair.
But with the explosion in dirty-South rap in the early part of this decade, golden mouthpieces blew up, too. People spend thousands of dollars for a grill, Santiago says. Its crazy, but they do it.
And his son wanted a piece of the business.
One guy in Denver was selling grills out of his house; when Nando asked about getting a display, he couldnt provide one. It turned out he was just a middleman for another company, so Nando decided to become a supplier himself. I knew people were ready for them; they just didnt know where to get them, he says.
He quickly became Denvers main grill connection. People would come to the shop and have a mold taken of their mouth, as if they were getting fake teeth or a mouth guard. Then Nando would design the grills and order them from Paul Wall in Texas. Although Nando sold one grill for $6,000, they can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. Basically, a grill is a grill here, he explains. Its not like in Texas, where theyre more popular and people can spot a cheap one.
But Nandos new business soon faced another challenge: Someone bought the building where his fathers shop had been for fourteen years. In July, the new owner gave the Mondragons twelve days notice that the rent would be tripling. So Nando went looking for a space, and found one at 4815 East Colfax, which he turned into an all-Certified Customs shop. He designed a sign for the shop, then started producing his own clothing line with that same label. He sells local hip-hop CDs in the shop, too.
A few months later, Nando found a spot for his fathers framing business at 555 Santa Fe. But Santiago suspects that one day, hell again join forces with his son. Nandos going to be way more successful than I am, he says. Hes going to make way more money. Hes a hustler. Some day Ill probably be working for him, because I know hes going to do good.
Most people have crazy assumptions about us out here in the Mile High City. And something that really gets me heated is when people tell me that Im not from here, or they ask me where Im from because I got Bapes on my feet and a Coogi track jacket. Im from Denver and that is the reason Im fly. I just started to travel and everywhere I go, Im in. Nobody pointed at me when I was on South Beach like Hey, that cowboy must be from Colorado. Maybe cause this cowboy was wearin Miskeen shorts with the purple LRG shirt and matching Marvel Comics Bapestas. And dont forget to mention the 22K dollars around my neck and the ice tray in my mouth!@!! I rep my city in such a fly way, its crazy!!!
By the night of Kenyon Martins birthday party, Nandos Colfax shop had been open five months, doing pretty good business by word of mouth. But you have to spend money to make money, so Nando had already gone ahead and bought that necklace on credit to advertise his business.
People grow up and they dont have money, then they see all that stuff on videos, and thats the thing we aspire to to have money, fast cars and nice jewelry, he says, explaining the lure of such bling. We spend all the money we have just to look like we have money. People who really have money, they dont spend $6,000 on teeth. I think what people are trying to do is build a little bit of jealousy I got more than you got and instead of jealousy, they want to take it from you.
Its a jealousy thing, he continues. Its an I wanna be better than everyone thing. I deal with that every day. Denver is more of a jealous-hater type place than other cities. I can go down to Miami and wear all my jewelry, but in Denver, they dont admire you. They think, Fuck you, you think you the shit, and I dont understand how someone can think theyre the shit just because of what you wear.
But Nando knew that he needed the freshest gear to get the ear of the Nuggets. Finally, he found the necklace, put it on and went back to DC10.
The necklace did the job.
As he walked by, Carmelo Anthony noticed Nando. He came up to shake Nandos hand, and Nando slipped him a card. Then someone else in the crowd came up to Nando, whispered something close. I always see the same people coming up to me, saying theyre going to come get their grill done, Nando says, but those are the people who never do.
Ive sat on the sidelines watchin the game. Never really cared too much about gettin on the field but honestly I believe its time for my city to get exposure and be respected in this Hip-Hop Super Bowl. I may not be the most recognized person in the 303 or even close but Im certified for many reasons. So what my plan is based on is respect....
As a condition of Nandos parole being switched to Colorado, he was not to leave the state. But the first weekend in January, he and his girlfriend took a trip to Vegas, of all places.
Nando had been cheating on his girl, making up for lost time, and the couple got into a heated argument in their room at the MGM Grand.
We got loud, and I think it got a little exaggerated, says Nandos girlfriend. The neighbors are the ones who called the cops. I never wouldve called them.
When the cops came, Nando knew he was going back to jail, probably prison. They asked Nando if his girlfriend had been fighting, too, and whether they should take her, but he told them no.
Nando was booked into the Clark County Detention Facility on one charge of assault, with a hearing set for February. In the meantime, hes violated his parole in Colorado, and his parole has been switched back to Nevada. Hes not sure how long it will be before he can return to Denver; it could be years.
Im back in the same place where I started, Nando says.
The same physical space, but Nando has come a long way in the last year. So the first thing he did when he was locked up was sit down with a pad and paper and start planning his next move.
Basically, where Im at right now, its huge, it looks crazy, it doesnt make sense but even if I go all the way to 2010, people are gonna hear from me when I get out, he says. Certified Customs is going to be all over the city. You cant give up your dreams.
This is not my regular life; I dont fit in jail, he continues. Last time, I got used to it this was my life. Now Im running a good business, something that kids can look up to instead of looking up to drug dealers. The skys the limit. I want to keep reaching for other kids who grew up like I did to have something to look up to. I dont belong here, but I took the rap. Im still from where Im from. People may say Im hard-headed, that Ive got too much to lose, but this is who I am, this is how I was raised and brought up. Its not over. Ill go to court, Ill do my time, Ill get out and keep working hard. Im just looking at this as a minor setback.
So if you never heard of King Soopers, never hit Feds on a Sunday night, or hit the 16th Street mall when the Broncos won the Super Bowl, then its hard to get a feel for my city. So heres my tiny contribution. Im opening my racks to anybody that is reppin for Colorado. Whether you rap, wanna sell some graff you got on canvas, mixtapes or a video of you break dancin in ya garage, I got you. So represent and express your style in your way... be different. Dont be afraid to stick out. Because at the end of the day we are on this side of the wall and basically if youre not tryin to be unique, I know thousands of guys right now that would love to trade places with you and would love to wear some pink, orange and lime green Certified Kickz at the drop of a dime!
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