Daniel John Ward — known to two generations of Honolulu dance club fans as DJ Daniel J — died in his sleep Tuesday at his Kaneohe residence. He was 55.
In the 1980s Daniel J introduced Honolulu to the then-new electronic dance music genre of house music. He became the first DJ to convince a local radio station (KIKI Hot I-94) that a nightclub-style mix show would be commercially viable, presenting a show on the station in 1988.
Ward was born and raised in San Francisco. The club scene called him at an early age. Ward was 11 when he started DJ’ing at an all-ages nightclub.
At 15, making $200 a night as a DJ, he left school. Eventually, he took the equivalent of the G.E.D. and continued his formal education at a community college. Six successful years later, in 1985, he came to Hawaii.
“I had just broken up with my girlfriend, and my mom flew me out to Hawaii for a vacation,” Ward told Honolulu Star-Bulletin staff writer Jason Genegabus in 2004. “My third day here, I met Sonya Mendez.”
Mendez was the lead singer of Sonya and the Revolucion, at the time the house band of the Wave Waikiki. She introduced Ward to Jack Law, owner of the Wave Waikiki and Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand. Law had him come into Hula’s for an audition and hired him as the Wave’s resident DJ several days after that.
Ward was the house DJ at the Wave for seven years, providing the soundtrack for “club kids” when that phenomenon was taking hold in Hawaii.
“Music was always first with Daniel,” said Jack Law, who operated the Wave.
Dancer/choreographer Willow Chang, who worked alongside Ward at the Wave and danced for Ward at several of his big club events, described Ward as “our own electronica pied piper.” Chang said, “He treated me like family in the best of ways. As a woman — and someone who’s worked in the club, restaurant, music, dance and promotions scene — you can’t imagine how rare that is.”
Ward created an “underground” dance night at Anna Bannanas, called “The Love Club,” in 1988, featuring house music.
In 1992 Ward presented Honolulu’s first commercial rave event at Pink’s Garage, drawing a room full of dancers there to hear a DJ mix designed to produce euphoria.
At Pink’s Garage and Pink Cadillac, Ward produced “Dance Floor Democracy,” Hawaii’s club mix show to be broadcast live for “Sheriff Norm” Winter’s Radio Free Hawaii.
He often DJ’d at Honolulu clubs Blue Zebra and After Dark during the 1990s.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, Ward partnered with Love Fest Hawaii promoter Greg “G-Spot” Dehnert to produce “Phuture 2000” with Carl Cox at the Kakaako Waterfront, Honolulu’s part of a worldwide concert that was televised on the BBC. Ward’s website says 15,000 were in attendance at the Hawaii event.
For his 40th birthday, in 2004, Ward celebrated with a star- studded show at the Wave in 2004. He continued to headline DJ events up until his death, with a show scheduled for Saturday at Surfer, the Bar, at the Turtle Bay Resort.
Famed nightclub promoter Matt Grimm, who as Ward’s contemporary produced rave dance events in the 1990s, remembered Ward as “a unique soul who was truly powered and energized by his music.”
“He was the original pioneer of house music in Hawaii,” Grimm continued. “Literally, he has touched so many lives with his DJ’ing and events it would be hard to quantify – easily over 100,000.
“Whenever almost anyone talks about Daniel J, they always mention his passion and how he was always so positive and smiling.”
Ward’s survivors include his son, ukulele virtuoso Zavior Amore Ward; mother, Anne Palmera Ward; brother, Steve Ward; and sister, Mary Ward Brady.
A celebration of Ward’s life will be held from 2 p.m. to sunset Sunday at Barefoot Beach Cafe at 2699 Kalakaua Ave. near Queen’s Beach. Ward and other DJs often worked there on weekend afternoons.