LOS ANGELES - More than a decade ago, when Michael Jackson was working on what would become his final album, a young producer named Rodney Jerkins set up shop in the dance room of the singer's Neverland Ranch. A youngster approached Jerkins with a bold swagger.
"I'm going to work with you. We're going to work together on my album," Austin "Auggie" Brown told Jerkins, a former Pleasantville resident, who flashed back to his own introduction to Jackson as a teenager.
"I'm looking at this 13-year-old kid and I'm seeing all this ambition and it reminded me of myself the first time I met his uncle," Jerkins recalls. "I believe that when you speak things into existence, it happens. ... I said, 'I'll be ready when you're ready.'"
Brown - the son of Jackson's older sister Maureen, known as Rebbie - is now 24, and has been working at Jerkins' Los Angeles studio for months to create his debut album, "85." He's a serious and passionate student of music and dance, with handsome, distinctively angular facial features that recall his uncle in the "Thriller" period. Surrounded by musicians in his formative years, "I was a sponge," he said.
"My brother-in-law Rex, who taught me how to produce, he would show me how to play, like, a Janet song or something. And then I'd go to her and be like 'Watch this!'" he said. "I wanted to learn and to learn the songs. Play the songs, and then get the reaction from playing it and show people. I wanted to figure out the music, not just be around the music."
Perhaps the only surprise is that Brown didn't enter the family business sooner.
"It was really important to me to develop," Brown said in an interview alongside Jerkins, with his mother looking on quietly. "First and foremost, music is a privilege. It's not an entitlement for me. So I wanted to get better and get to the point where I felt like I was ready. And I did it on my own. I wanted to write with my own people, meet people for myself. Really go through the grind that everyone has to go through."
To be sure, Brown first hit a stage when he was 3 at one of his mother's concerts in Japan. Family connections led him to talented dance coaches in Las Vegas and to Jerkins. It was family connections that prompted interest from People magazine, Access Hollywood and MTV even before the release of his first song. But Brown makes it clear he wants to succeed based on his own talent.
"My last name is Brown. And you know, I can't help where I come from, but I love where I come from," he said.
Brown says his album will blend classic soul and 1980s pop sounds with contemporary dance beats. He cites as influences Billy Idol, George Michael, Prince and his uncle - particularly when it comes to the key ingredient in songcraft.
"My uncle, he was a stickler on that. He always told me, 'The melody. Be true to the melody. Melody is key,'" Brown said. "So that's really what we tried to do with '85.'"
Jerkins, who completed a number of additional songs with Jackson before the singer's death last year, says the rich tones of Brown's voice have been prompting more flashbacks.
"I haven't really told him this, but there have been moments where I listen to a part and it's like 'Whoa!' I get goosebumps because it just really puts me in that mindset of MJ," Jerkins said. "And that's amazing to me. Because it takes you there for a second."
Brown has released his first song, "Target Practice," for free via his website and expects to release his debut album, "85," next year on his label, The Royal Factory.