The driver's seat in Carmelo Anthony's 1971 Chevelle is set so far back that Vett Capone can't reach the gas pedal.
The five-foot-six-inch Capone slides the seat forward about a foot and a half, then fires up the classic American engine, which rumbles like a boat's motor as the smell of gas fills the air. He closes the driver's-side door and rolls the tinted window down about halfway, allowing the drivers of cars cruising alongside to see his shaved head and eyebrow rings, but not his whole face.
It's Cinco de Mayo, and Capone heads from his Lakewood shop over toward Federal Boulevard to kick off Denver's cruising season. The Chevelle, which he customized for Carmelo, out-styles most of the rides along the way. It sits on custom chrome wheels and has a vinyl roof, which Capone designed to match the "earthquake orange" paint job. A speaker box that he made from fiberglass sits in the trunk, a set of steel balls hangs from the rear axle, and Baltimore Orioles logos adorn the ride's interior and exterior. The Chevelle is one of about fourteen cars that Capone has customized for the Nugget over the past three years. Carmelo likes his work so much that he's become a name partner in Capone Carmelo Kustomz.
Capone pulls the Chevelle up to a tattoo shop where several Mexican tattoo artists are leaning against the concrete wall. They all have shaved heads, loc sunglasses, Dickies pants and wife-beaters that show off their Aztec-style tattoos. Capone parks and walks into the alley behind the shop.
When he returns, he's behind the wheel of a black 1964 Lincoln Continental that fans of Entourage would instantly recognize. He parks the boat-sized vehicle between the Chevelle and a bright-green Camaro with Lamborghini doors that are open, reaching to the sky. Capone runs back into the alley again and returns in a new Dodge Charger, which he parks between the Lincoln and the Chevelle.
Screams of "Daaaaammmnnn" pour out of an SUV packed with teenage girls. Men look, too. All of the cars going by slow down so that their occupants can look at Capone's collection; some cars stop completely. Others almost collide when drivers take their eyes off the road.
"I love that feeling when I see the reaction people have to the cars," Capone says.
A kid walks up and asks him if he can take a picture of the Chevelle. Capone tells the kid to pose with each of the rides, even lets him sit in one of them, and snaps the kid's picture. The next camera to come along belongs to a college student who's making a documentary and wants to videotape someone talking about the cars. Capone acts like he's camera-shy, but he's not.
"That car belongs to Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets," he tells her. "It's an '06 Dodge Charger with 24-inch Giovanna rims, smoked-out tinted lights, a system." He motions for one of his employees who's standing by the cars to pop the trunk and show off the boom.
"This one's another customer of mine, a gang member's car. It's an '87 Camaro with 22-inch tires and candy-green spinners on the wheels," Capone continues. "It's got an alligator-skin custom interior."
As soon as the documentary student wraps up her shoot, another camera crew rolls up — a local TV station filming the Cinco de Mayo festivities. Capone repeats the breakdown of his cars: "That's Camby's, that's Camby's, and that's Carmelo's."
When Capone leaves the tattoo shop to head down Federal, it's in one of Camby's cars. Pimping the Nuggets' rides has given him exposure and name recognition around town. But when he looks in his rearview mirror and sees a squad car with its red and blue lights flashing, he knows that Camby's name is the one to drop.
"I don't look like I belong in these cars," he explains, braking to a halt.
Thirty-two-year-old Vett Capone comes from a car family. Growing up in Arizona, he loved to build model cars. He was about eight when his father bought him his first bike; Capone promptly sanded off the factory paint and gave it a custom job using the paints from his model-car kits. His parents didn't recognize it, he remembers, and thought he might have stolen another bike. To this day, he jokes, he's not sure if they sent him to work at his uncle's paint shop as punishment or because they saw his potential.
It took a while before his uncle let him work on cars. Instead, he had to run errands and take out the trash. But eventually he was given some basic painting duties, and after a couple of years, his uncle asked Capone if he knew how to paint "candy."
"Candy, I know how to paint candy," Capone replied. He was lying.
Painting candy is a three-stage job. A metallic layer goes directly on the car, a semi-transparent layer that lets the metallic layer shine through and reflect sunlight goes over that, and then up to thirteen clear topcoats are added. Capone's first candy job was a disaster. His uncle fired him and sent him to work at Maaco. This time, he knew it was both for punishment and potential. "Go mess up their cars instead," his uncle said.
Maaco wasn't nearly as fun as his uncle's shop, though, and Capone soon scored a job with Red's Hydraulics in Phoenix, where he learned how to install the switches and hydraulic pumps that make cars bounce off the pavement and roll on three wheels — "hydros."
Lowriding was born on the streets of Los Angeles in the '50s, back when Chicanos were truly a minority. The kids started by customizing the classic rides of their parents' generation — all they could afford at the time — and that set the trend for five decades of dropping older cars inches from the pavement. The trend spread into black neighborhoods, and even into the white suburbs. Lowriders became big business, and there was money to be made. But, Capone says, in 1990, when his father got a new job and moved the family to Denver, this city was way behind Phoenix in the lowrider world. Even a kid had a chance to get in the game.
Capone did stints at Skyview High School in Thornton as well as Lakewood High, West High and Alameda High. But he was more interested in painting cars than studying, so he finally dropped out of school altogether and set up a painting business that stretched from neighborhood garages to his parents' lawn. After neighbors complained, an inspector with the Denver Fire Department came to check out the operation. "Your house doesn't look like a junkyard; it looks like Candyland," the inspector told Capone, gesturing at all the car parts painted bright shades of red, blue, orange, green and yellow.
That same inspector mentioned a shop for rent on South Santa Fe Drive. It was $1,500 a month, but Capone could raise that much on a single paint job, even with his bare-bones set of tools: wrenches, screwdrivers, an air compressor and a paint gun. He set up shop there in 1997.
Capone was out cruising one day in 1998 when he saw a skinny black kid driving an '85 Caprice with hydraulics pull a U-turn and follow him. "This fool better not hop on me," he remembers thinking.
Stacy Mariney was just fourteen years old when he pulled up next to Capone. His car was sitting on deep-dish chrome wheels with a hundred spokes each, but his driver's-side window didn't roll all the way down, so he had to open the door in order to ask Capone if he wanted to buy some hydraulic pumps for $350. Capone thought the pumps were stolen and that the car probably was, too, so he declined the offer. He was ready to drive on when he noticed the dirty laundry in the back of Mariney's car and figured it wasn't stolen after all.
He caught back up to Mariney, and the two started talking. Capone could see that the hydro pumps on Mariney's car weren't working correctly, so he had Mariney follow him back to the shop. After Capone made some quick adjustments to the car that got it hopping better than any other shop in town could, Mariney told him he wanted to learn the business.
Capone took Mariney on as an apprentice, playing big brother to the kid who was nine years younger, even selling him his Cutlass. Today they're still close friends, closer than they are with their own brothers.
In 1999, Capone moved his business up to 69th and Franklin. Mariney was right alongside him. One hot afternoon, the two were kicking it at the shop. Mariney was pissed because the twenty-inch rims he'd just bought for his Chevy Blazer had the wrong size lug nuts; Capone wanted to try the wheels on his 1988 silver Monte Carlo. At the time, Mariney remembers, people were slapping 20s on trucks, but hardly anyone — maybe no one in Denver — was putting them on cars. He told Capone to go ahead and try, just for the weekend and no hopping, so that the rims wouldn't get bent. Together they lifted the frame of the Monte about a foot so they could fit the big wheels inside the wheel well. Despite Mariney's no-hopping request, Capone hit the switches. He wound up bouncing the Monte away with several more car-show trophies that season, all with Mariney's 20s.
Capone and Mariney were on the edge of a custom-car revolution. Industry focus was moving from lowriders to "whips" — cars that caused heads to whip around to look as they rolled by — and they were a part of that change.
But Mariney was changing, too. Although many of Capone's customers were gangbangers, he'd always made it clear that his shop was about cars, not colors. But now Mariney was drifting down the gangster path that Capone had worked so hard to avoid. In November 2001, Mariney was rolling with Trey-Five Crips when he was arrested on charges of aggravated robbery and menacing, which he later pleaded down to accepting stolen goods.
While Mariney sat in jail, Capone asked what he could do to help. Mariney always gave the same answer: "Just keep that shop open until I get out."
Capone did, but he had to double his workload while Mariney served his seven months.
By the summer of 2002, the dynamic duo was back on a roll, cruising down Federal and through LoDo at Let Out, turning heads with their custom rides. Capone's designs were also winning trophies at car shows.
But business was bad that winter, and Capone decided to move to Miami, where he could pick up new tricks of the trade from some of the industry's best. Capone took off the twenty-inch wheels, slapped his "baby" Daytons — thirteen-inch wheels with a hundred gold spokes each — back on the Monte, and rolled all the way to Florida, even though Mariney and the rest of the crew had warned that it couldn't be done.
Capone called them, triumphant, from Florida — just as his engine blew.
It wasn't easy breaking into Miami's well-established car scene. At times Capone had to work for free just to learn new techniques. He also traded painting and hydraulic tips for pointers on upholstery and stereos.
Finally, after more than a year in Miami, Capone caught a lucky break — back in Colorado. One of his friends, a tattoo artist, was inking Denver Nugget Chris Andersen, aka "Birdman," who was looking for someone to hook up his new yellow Hummer with tint, new wheels, a sound system and maybe a little paint.
In the custom-car business, working with celebrities can make all the difference. Capone flew back to Denver for the job, and even let Mariney convince him to do it in a new shop they opened in Aurora. Although Andersen wasn't originally looking for a complete paint job, Capone persuaded him to get rid of all things yellow.
"I was like, sure, why not, so I gave him a check to paint it and see what he had, and we painted it a candy blue with bowling-ball swirls and blue flakes," Andersen remembers. "It was his first time painting a Hummer, the whole thing. I was kind of rushing him a bit, as well, but we didn't know at the time that when we put the original pieces back on it, the chemicals from all the plastic pieces messed up some of the paint. The paint actually had to sit for three weeks, but we didn't let it sit that long. We just put it all back together."
But Capone knows how to take care of his customers. And so when he noticed that Andersen's birthday was coming up, he added a Gucci interior free of charge to the Hummer's $35,000 in upgrades and custom work. Andersen was so grateful that he gave Capone a tip: a Mustang that runs a ten-second quarter-mile, which is way too fast for the streets. That car, complete with Birdman's autograph, still sits in Capone's shop.
Capone started showing the Hummer at car shows around town, collecting more trophies. In the process, the Hummer earned several nicknames: Aqua Fina, Blue Bonnet, Blueberry, Iceberg and Papa Smurf.
Capone was back in business.
One day Andersen came into Capone's shop with what seemed like the entire Nuggets squad. They were all impressed with Papa Smurf and wanted to hook up rides of their own.
Voshon Lenard became a regular customer after Capone added Lamborghini doors to his brand-new Corvette. He came back for a stereo system, custom interior, paint, 21-inch rims, a new convertible top, tinted windows and smoked-out lights. Then he came back again for 22-inch wheels. All in all, Lenard dropped about $44,000 on that car's upgrade, Capone says.
Next, Lenard dropped off a new GMC Denali, ordered new rims and paint and asked Capone to remove the back seats and install eight eighteen-inch subwoofers. He also wanted Capone to hook up a 1964 Lincoln Continental and a new BMW.
Capone was doing some stereo work and interior repairs for Marcus Camby, too. And Carmelo Anthony's people had started bringing in his cars for repairs.
On January 2, 2005, Capone was driving Lenard's Corvette to another shop to use a machine that stretches tires over the big wheels. He was cruising down Colfax when he caught a stoplight at Chambers. Some teenagers were playing the stop-and-go game in front of him, he remembers, blocking each other out of lanes. So when the light turned green, Capone went to change lanes. As he looked back over his shoulder, the car in front of him changed lanes, too. Capone tried to move to a third lane, but he over-steered and crashed into a tree by the side of the road. He could feel that one of his legs was broken. A branch that had ripped through the window was now crammed between Capone's mangled body and the steering wheel.
As he heard the police sirens drawing closer, Capone sat in the Corvette, laughing hysterically. Once this story got out, he knew his car-customizing career would be over.
"Don't move — hands in the air," Capone remembers hearing the police say. They thought he'd stolen the car and seemed afraid that Capone was reaching for a gun, not just trying to free his pinned body. Capone was thinking the cop might as well shoot him when — bang!
The airbag popped out of the steering wheel and broke Capone's shoulder.
As the doctors worked on Capone — ultimately installing sixteen steel pins in his legs, both of which were broken — the tale of him crashing the Corvette raced through town. People said he was showing off, people said he was racing, people said he was abusing his connections. One of his competitors came to see the damage for himself, talking shit to Capone in the hospital. "You'll never get another ballplayer's car again," he said, laughing.
Another visitor was Reverend Leon Kelly, the anti-gang activist whose Capone-customized 1978 Cadillac Eldorado was about to be featured in Lowrider magazine.
"I flatlined, Rev," Capone told him. "I was dead, and you know what? There's no light at the end of the tunnel."
"That's because you're heading the wrong way," Kelly said.
People kept on Capone's case when he got out of the hospital, telling him that he was living too fast, that he had to slow down and re-evaluate things. He had plenty of time to do so: Doctors said he might never walk again, and for four months he was stuck in bed. Depressed, he closed the shop in Aurora and started giving away his tools.
But Mariney stayed with him. So finally Capone picked up his paint gun and laid it to the Mitsubishi Eclipse that he owned but couldn't drive because he was confined to a wheelchair. He did the car in a chameleon style that looks like five different colors, depending on how the light hits it. Painting made Capone feel so much better than any therapy that he soon started walking on crutches — just five months after he'd been sentenced to the chair for good. After three months on crutches, he was walking with a "pimp-ass cane." He dropped that after just a few weeks.
Although Capone had been issued a ticket for reckless driving, that case was dropped, too, after tape from a surveillance camera at a grocery store on the corner showed that he wasn't at fault, he says. Plus, the Corvette's black box indicated he'd only been going 24 miles per hour.
Mariney wasn't the only one standing by Capone. Lenard brought him about ten more cars before he was traded and then retired in the middle of the '05-'06 season. And although other ballers had taken their cars elsewhere while Capone was laid up, they eventually came back to him.
By the end of summer 2005, Capone was ready to get a new start at a new shop, which he opened at 1240 Harlan Street, just outside the Denver city limits in Lakewood. New business followed, but Capone knows that he's more of an artist than a businessman. Once he starts working on a car, he doesn't like to let price get in the way of his vision. And when he's working on a baller's car, price sometimes doesn't enter the picture at all. Paint jobs that he values at anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 are often given away. The ballers know they're in demand as customers, even non-paying customers, and they know that if Capone doesn't "hook it up," someone else will. And for every baller's car that he pimps out and puts on the streets, Capone estimates that four more customers come in.
"Everybody thinks that I got millions because I'm messin' with these million-dollar cars, these million-dollar ballers," Capone explains. But the ballers aren't where all of his money comes from — even though they're the ones who can afford to splurge on fancy paint jobs and shiny rims, on shaving off door handles and customizing speaker boxes, on tinting windows, laying suede interiors and installing multiple TVs. Capone can even get ballers hooked up with suppliers, companies willing to give expensive chrome wheels away to athletes if their cars are going to appear in magazines, as many of Capone's do. Sometimes he can even get them great deals on grilles that typically cost upwards of $10,000.
Grilles like the one he put on the 2006 Range Rover owned by former MTV VJ La La Vasquez, Carmelo Anthony's girlfriend and the mother of his baby. Capone painted the car a custom color called "La La pink," styled out the interior with microphone designs and added 24-inch Dub chrome rims with a slight pink tinge — $60,000 worth of upgrades that only cost the couple about $12,000, he says.
These connections can work in Capone's favor as well. Carmelo was so impressed by the work Capone did on his rides that he decided to lend his name to the business.
"Capone's great at what he does," Carmelo says. "Anyone who can be creative like that and do all that by himself — he can paint, do stereos, rims, tint and interiors. Usually that takes ten people for one car, and it's just amazing that he can do all that right there."
"What you put into a car is something you've really thought a lot about, it's all about how you feel," he adds. "Whatever you put in there is what you want to feel, whatever kind of mood you want to be in when you get in that car."
And when he gets in his Chevelle, Carmelo says, "it feels like heaven."
License and registration," the officer tells Capone as he pulls him over on Cinco de Mayo. "Do you know why I stopped you?"
"Yeah, the windows are too dark," Capone says to the two Denver Police Department gang-unit officers and the ATF agent gathered around the car. "If you guys want, I'll tear this tint off of it right now."
"Well, you may just have to do that," the officer responds, then notes that Marcus Camby — whose name is indeed on the registration — should have updated his New York license plates in Colorado.
When Capone explains that Camby sends his cars back and forth from Denver to New York, the officer says he can't take Capone's word for that. Instead, if he wants to, he can take the car and give Capone a $1,000 fine for driving it.
The officer takes Capone's driver's license back to the squad car to run his name. It comes back clean except for a few arrests (including a couple of assaults that Capone was never charged with) and a handful of traffic violations — including driving under restraint, operating an unsafe vehicle (hydros) and disturbing the peace (booming car stereos). The officer returns to the driver's-side window, while another officer approaches from the passenger side.
"Step on out of the vehicle for me," he tells Capone, who does so reluctantly. "My computer tells me you were warned about this tint in a different car."
"What?" Capone asks.
"A '64 Lincoln," he says.
The first cop turns Capone around and pats him down.
"The reason this tint was outlawed is because we got sick of police officers walking up to the car and not being able to see inside and getting shot at," he tells Capone. "Do you have anything that could hurt me?"
"No," Capone replies.
"Is that a knife in your pocket?"
"Stop with the attitude," the cop says. "We saw the car shaking back and forth."
"Shaking back and forth?"
"Yeah, did I stutter?" the officer responds, then asks to search the car.
Capone is reluctant to agree to the search — partly because he hates the harassment, partly because the car isn't even his, so granting permission borders on violating his customer's privacy. But he has nothing to hide, and if he does consent, he knows that he'll probably be let off without a ticket for the tint or the New York plates.
"Go ahead," Capone says with a wave of the hand.
"Respect me," the officer says. "I'm not disrespecting you."
Capone rolls his eyes as they search the car. The officers find nothing.
"Give me respect," the officer repeats. "I treat you with respect, I told you everything that I'm doing. I didn't rip you out of the car and throw you on the ground, did I?" He gives Capone his license, along with a warning that he'll probably get pulled over again before he makes it back to the shop.
"I usually get pulled over two or three times a week," Capone says.
But while cops always give Capone a hard time about the tint, most of the ballers are waved off.
"You've got some cops who understand," says Reggie Evans, another Denver Nugget who's a customer of Capone. "We try to look out for other people's safety, also."
Motorists often get too excited to drive when they see a baller, he explains. They'll pull out their cameras or ask for autographs when they're supposed to focus on driving. That's why Capone will be blacking out the windows of Evans's red '76 Impala and his green '73 Caprice. The Caprice is a priority, because Evans wants it in time to celebrate the off-season in Florida, where they call '71-'75 Chevy Impalas and Caprices "donks."
"One thing about Florida is that you got to have a donk," Evans says. "A donk is the biggest thing."
Evans already had his Impala customized in Florida, where he stays in the off-season, but he's decided to give Capone a crack at the donk.
"I want to redo it again just to try something different," he says. "Different paint job. Bring another, different flavor to Florida. I've been looking at other people's cars in magazines, and I just want to do something different instead of something basic. When he's done with the green one, I'll hold it down. I think it'll be real, real great, like Tony the Tiger great. One thing I like about Capone, he's got a lot of love for what he does. Like with playing basketball: You gotta love the game. My passion for basketball is like his passion for cars. He's got a lot of passion."
"He'll go the extra mile to make a customer happy at the end of the day," Evans continues. "He did some work for free for people who have money and some work for free for people who don't have money. He just likes that smile on people's faces when the results are all done." Capone and his crew are working hard to inspire that smile. One cloudy afternoon, they start stripping down Evans's Caprice while continuing work on J.R. Smith's 2008 Ford F-150, which will have about $70,000 worth of upgrades before they're done — half of which Smith will pay for. The four-door pickup has been sitting in the shop for six months, stripped of its paint, and it should have been done four months ago — but making the rear doors of the four-door model "suicide," so that they open in opposite directions, proved to be more work than Capone had expected. To make up for the delay, he's surprising Smith with some realistic flames that he's adding to the truck's paint job — a gig he says should bill at $10,000. But like the rims, it's going to be free on this truck, which is destined for a magazine cover.
Capone's got all the windows taped up on the F-150, and his crew pushes it into the painting room. They pull Evans's Caprice to the back of the shop, move Carmelo's Chevelle over and drive a gangster's Camaro out front. Mariney is cleaning Capone's office, and another one of Capone's seven employees is backing Camby's Cadillac Escalade into the shop. The Cadillac dealership is sending over a customer who's buying two Escalades, both of which he wants customized.
Gangster rap is blaring from the shop's stereo system. Capone has someone turn it down when a Middle Eastern man and woman walk up. The man is wearing sandals, the woman is wearing a burka and carrying a digital camera. She takes pictures as Capone shows them around the tinted windows, custom wheels and blacked-out light of Camby's Escalade. Capone pulls down the twenty-inch screen that he installed on the ceiling between the driver's and passenger's seats, each of which has its own screen and DVD player in the back of the headrest. Capone points out the suede interior, the boomin' system, the 28-inch rims and the $10,000 grille up front.
The man seems impressed.
"My customers are a different kind of celebrity," he tells Capone with an accent, mentioning that he needs to turn the vehicles into "presidential editions," which will be sent to one of the hottest places on earth. He wants an extra air conditioner and a refrigerator, too, but worries about having to charge extra batteries.
"No problem," Capone says. "We can put on a bigger alternator, too."
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"My friend, if you do this car, my client will fly you to Libya. You will be very well taken care of, like a famous person. You will be put up in five-star hotels if you do good work," the man — a Libyan, apparently — tells him.
"All of my work is good. All of my work is magazine quality," Capone says. "How about six-star hotels?"
The Libyan also wants a phone line, a fax line and laptop computers with Internet connection. Most important, the vehicles have to be bulletproof: They're for Colonel Moammar al-Ghadafi and his sons, the Libyan finally acknowledges — but Capone has no idea who they are. He catches on fast, though, and as he talks about what he'll do with the cars, he floats the idea of taking the business global with a new partner.
Capone Carmelo Ghadafi Kustomz has a nice ring.