The U Street nightclub in Northwest Washington was packed with people angling to see and be seen. Women in chunky high heels and body-hugging dresses. Men in designer ties and tinted glasses. Models, actors, politicians and musicians--the Beautiful People had arrived.
So why was it that the three guys in baggy jeans and black T-shirts, with baseball caps backward or sideways on their heads, were getting all the attention?
As usual, Khalil Wiggins, Po Johns and Mike Evans--members of the locally grown and nationally known rap trio Section 8 Mob--were being true to their roots, the streets, even at the tony premiere party given in their honor at Republic Gardens last month.
As they put it, the Section 8 Mob was just "keeping it real." That's how the native Prince George's County rappers earned a major record deal with a New York label last year. Since their debut album in 1994, they've made a name for themselves with street-based rap, just telling their stories, just "keeping it real."
That's also how they got to film a short movie with Academy Award-nominated actor Morgan Freeman: Sources said he liked their street story. And that's why they were at the party (though Freeman wasn't).
"This is like graduation day," said Wiggins, 25, known as "Montana" when he's on stage. "We're thanking God Almighty we made it this far."
Having long since moved from the county, the Section 8 Mob insisted last year that their semi-autobiographical movie be filmed on their actual home turf in Capitol Heights, Seat Pleasant and Temple Hills.
And when "Guilty by Association" was complete, they brought it home again to the Washington area, where friends and family watched the debut together.
The 45-minute movie, made to publicize the group's new album, cost about $300,000 and chronicles a friendship broken apart by the stresses of hustling on the streets of the nation's capital. Freeman appears in the movie as a high-ranking police officer who supervises the rappers, who also play officers.
All eyes were on the television monitors above the bars and on the big screens in the back of the club and upstairs near billiard tables.
Beatrice Nelson, an office manager at the municipal center in Capitol Heights, strained to see whether she had made the cut as an extra in the movie. And yes, there she was, in a white hat and a blue dress, on her way to a funeral.
While nibbling on salmon and jerk chicken, she said, "It was pretty interesting to watch them set up the cameras and everything. It was my first time watching a film being made."
Johns, 26, a graduate of Crossland High School in Temple Hills, said the movie has a fundamental message: "The movie is all about repercussions. People don't think about repercussions."
It would be easy to mistake the movie for just another shoot-em-up gangster flick, but the rappers say it's much more than that.
"We want to show you what's wrong and why. . . . We feel like, if somebody's going to get killed in a movie, you've got to go into detail about why," said Evans, 21, known as "Midnight."
A track titled "Repercussions" is the lead single off the Section 8 Mob's latest album, also titled "Guilty by Association." It was released last month. The video for "Repercussions" is a clip from the movie and is in regular play on BET.
Having found a little space to stand up against a wall and watch the movie, party guest Lisa Glover, 33, thought back to her days growing up in Capitol Heights.
"I'm from the same neighborhood Po grew up in," she said. "I'm so proud. I'm overwhelmed. Growing up back in the '80s, we were really close. He always wanted to be a rapper."
It had been a long time since "Po," "Montana" and "Midnight" were just high school buddies with dreams of making it big in the music business. They spent their time "battle rapping" other aspiring stars in Capitol Heights, Glenarden and Seat Pleasant, trying to prove themselves "the slickest rappers in the 'hood."
Now they sign autographs on those same streets--when they're home, that is. The group spends a lot of time in Atlanta these days, close to a recording studio, and in New York, close to Tommy Boy Music, the label that backs them.
And they have formed a company, Dark City Records and Film Productions, to promote the "Section 8 sound," which they describe as a soulful base line with hard beats and a combination of soft and intense orchestral elements.
And, of course, being from the Washington area, a couple of their songs have a go-go groove.
"Our stuff has a broad sound, and we can tell the crowd is feeling it," Johns said as he scanned the crowd. "I'm glad to see we got a lot of love here."
CAPTION: Section 8 Mob rappers "Midnight," left, "Po" and "Montana," pose during their album release party at Republic Gardens in Northwest Washington.