The Four Aces: Legacy in the Dust

In September 2023 we were proud to show Legacy In The Dust – The Four Aces Story, with an introduction by director Winstan Whitter. On the night, Newton Dunbar, founder of The Four Aces, now in his 90s, also came down and said a few words. In his struggle to keep the club open in the face of constant police surveillance and aggression, Newton was arrested 14 times. The film details the club’s immense cultural legacy and its role in shaping music and Black Britishness over three decades.

New York had the Apollo, London had the Four Aces. Prince Buster, the Upsetters, Ann Peebles, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Roy Shirley, Alton Ellis, the Ronettes, Jimmy Ruffin, Billy Ocean: just some of the soul and reggae artists who came to Hackney to play Newton Dunbar’s Four Aces Club in the ’60s and ’70s. At a time when black British culture was largely out of view, this local nightspot became a truly international stage.

In the ’80s, in the face of near-constant police surveillance and oppression, The Four Aces was a safe space for London’s sound systems, and Count Shelly, Fat Man, Jah Shaka and Sir Coxsone regularly shook its foundations. It drew its audience from all over London, and reggae-loving stars including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Bob Marley all dropped by. John Lydon, Chrissie Hynde, The Clash and The Slits were regulars.

photo © David Corrio

It was at The Four Aces that the sweet vocal style of reggae known as lovers’ rock was born. An enterprising young DJ, Lloyd Coxsone, who’d been dropping a few soul tracks into his sets, saw that the eager schoolgirls singing over dubplates at his weekly talent contest could easily be turned into little pop stars. He roped in producer Dennis Bovell to make it happen. Fifteen-year-old Louisa Mark’s ‘Caught You In A Lie’ on Safari was the first – a hit in 1975 – and scores more followed, epitomised by Janet Kay’s 1979 hit ‘Silly Games’. Lovers’ rock, with one foot on a Caribbean speaker stack and the other in a Hackney school disco, was an important milestone in the forging of black British identity.

As if all this wasn’t enough to put The Four Aces on the cultural map, as acid house dawned and repurposed the sound system formula, the club gave its space to the long-running Labrynth, drawing thousands to hardcore raves. Run by Joe Wieczorek, with residents Adrian Age, Vinyl Matt, Kenny Ken and Billy ‘Daniel’ Bunter, it was an important laboratory for the evolution of house into hardcore and jungle, and was where The Prodigy played their very first live show. While the M25 raves were creating mayhem in the home counties, from 1990-97 Hackney had its own home-grown version week in, week out.

Ben E King at The Four Aces
British Jamaican hitmaker (and future Desmonds star) Count Prince Miller rocks the Four Aces
Motown legend Jimmy Ruffin (R) greets Four Aces owner Newton Dunbar before taking the stage.

The Four Aces was on Dalston Lane, a little East of Dalston Junction station: between where Sainsbury’s and the CLR James Library are today. The vast space was originally the North London Colosseum and Amphitheatre, home to a Victorian circus, and boasted a rich interior of carvings and plasterwork. Now, inevitably, the spot is given over to luxury high-rises, but in the soil under those hipster hutches there’s enough musical history to fill volumes.

In Director Winstan Whitter’s 2008 film Legacy in the Dust – The Story of the Four Aces, the club’s evolution is described lovingly by its artists, DJs and punters. Whitter has a personal connection – his dad was chef and bartender at the club. The film has great live footage, photos, memorabilia and music, but the most evocative thing is its brilliant interviews. Speaking from the heart, a motley cast of characters, some famous, many not, tell you emotionally, and often hilariously, how important The Four Aces was in their lives, giving testimony to the power of a nightclub to create community.

As well as these heartwarming voices, the film powerfully explains London’s role in shaping the world’s black music. showing how reggae evolved as much in the UK as in Jamaica, and how the political implications of the sound system – freedom from authority to play whatever you want – was as much an ingredient of acid house as it was of reggae, dub and lovers rock.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

We’re excited to announce a very rare screening of Legacy In The Dust – The Four Aces Story, with an introduction by director Winstan Whitter, on Friday 8 Sep, at 8pm, at Everyman King’s Cross, followed by dancing at Supermax next door. Tickets are extremely limited, grab yours here.