The artwork for Lucky Luke's debut album shows him holding Mount Isa's infamous lead smelter like a didgeridoo. It's as if he's taking it back for his people.

"The photo, as you say, is almost like I am reclaiming the smelter," says the rapper, who is from the Waanyi, Mitakoodi, Ringa Ringa, Kalkadoon and Warumungu tribal groups.

"Well, I have long discussed with my family and friends that when our country has been raped and depleted of its rich resources, then the fly-in, fly-outs will go back to the cities, the property values will go lower, the job prospects will become fewer and this area won't attract workers any more. But my people will still be here - not because it is a 'lifestyle choice', but because we are connected with this land."

On March 10, exactly two weeks before Lucky Luke's album, Whichway, was released, Prime Minister Tony Abbott backed the planned closure of remote Indigenous communities, saying the government could not afford to subsidise the "lifestyle choices" of Aboriginal people to remain on their tribal homelands. Yet research published by think-tank The Australia Institute shows the government subsidised the mining industry by $17.6 billion over six years, from 2008 to 2014. By far, the biggest recipient was Queensland - home to Mount Isa's poison-belching smelter.

The artwork for Lucky Luke's debut album shows him holding Mount Isa's infamous lead smelter like a didgeridoo.

On the album's song "1 Day", which has been picked up by radio stations nationwide, Lucky Luke raps:

Imagine if this country was untouched
Imagine if the first fleet never came, bruz
Imagine if the world turned to us to take care of the land
Imagine if this country was run by a brother man
Imagine living in a world without material possessions
Imagine school giving kids cultural lessons
Imagine if we had no need for prison
And didn't have to worry about pollution when you go fishing

"I was trying to paint a picture of a better tomorrow," says the emcee. "If we put land care before profit, we would clean this country up for a better future for the next generations to come, because we are the original custodians of this land with 40,000-plus years' experience."

Lucky Luke's people, the Kalkadoon, waged one of Australia's most successful guerrilla wars in a fight for their lands. It ended with the slaughter of more than 200 tribe members at Battle Mountain in 1884. Thirty-nine years later, white prospector John Campbell Miles passed through the area and "stumbled upon" one of the world's richest deposits of copper, silver and zinc. Like many so-called "pioneers" who "opened up" the outback, he was being led by an Aboriginal guide. Yet the impression given is that he got lucky.

Lucky Luke got his auspicious name after he was born Joseph Luke Dargan, 120 kilometres from Mount Isa.

"I was delivered by the reverend Doctor Harvey Sutton on the 13th of April, 1979, in Cloncurry," he says. "It was aBlack Friday and it was Good Friday. My grandmother, Annie Davis, later said we don't have to be suspicious of Black Friday any more as something lucky happened to us, something good to celebrate. They were lucky to have me.

"I originally had 25 songs for the album and I liked them all and wanted them all in there. But eventually I chose 13 because I was born on the 13th and it is my lucky number."

Lucky Luke's tiny birth town of Cloncurry also has a lucky number: 53.1 is the number of degrees celsius its temperature was recorded as hitting in 1889, instantly searing it into the map as the hottest place in Australia. By 2007, its extreme sunshine had it earmarked to become Australia's first town run entirely from solar power. Five years later, the Queensland government scrapped the solar plan, "to achieve savings for the state’s taxpayers". Instead, the state began pushing an alternative to the area's heavily subsidised and declining mining industry - uranium.

The road from Cloncurry passes the uranium mining ghost town of Mary Kathleen before hitting Mount Isa, a city whose industrial-strength thirst was until recently draining the drought-hit Moondarra lake to dangerous levels.

The road from Cloncurry passes the uranium mining ghost town of  Mary Kathleen before hitting Mount Isa.

When Lucky Luke was asked to "rap the weather" for the ABC's Triple J radio, he referenced the drying lake and a python that was filmed eating a crocodile on its exposed shores.

Welcome to Mount Isa
4825 the Queensland state
Head out bush to see the
croc-eating snake
On the shores of the
Moondarra lake
We had four years of drought
But we still great
Never a dry moment
When you're hanging with mates

Showing the gulf between Australia's outback and most Australians - nine out of 10 live in urban areas - the show's hosts baulked at the line about the snake, suggesting the story might be a "hoax".

Lucky Luke laughs at the memory. "They thought I was making it up," he says.

Just as surreal, yet brutally real, as the croc-eating python is the story of the local Indigenous people rubbing python fat into their children's skin, darkening it to stop the government removing them as "half-castes".

As Lucky Luke relates on his song "Send Me To My Grave", his grandfather's parents rubbed python fat into his grandfather's skin, but that didn't stop him being taken away. The song plays out with all the cinematic scope and drama of the outback:

Send me to my grave
I don't wanna be here no more
Send me to my grave
When the light's out, I'm out the door
Yes, yes, yes
I'm not getting beat any more
I got a big mean woman

I need to leave this mission land
Understand Murri's got a plan
Snuck out the dormitory and I ran
Fast as I can, I don't understand
Why they took me off my land
I miss my clan
So I'm heading due south
Take a left at the river's mouth
No food so I'm fresh out, sweating, feeling hurt
Being light-skinned is a curse
If they catch me first the beating's getting worse
So I hide my tracks in the red dirt

I'm going home to the place of my birth
Rainbow Serpent keep me safe on this earth
Let me see my family first
Dying of this thirst
It's getting worse
Hear 'em coming, gotta hide
Don't make a noise as they ride by
Slowly cry, wipe the tears from my eyes
Run the other way
Guided by the stars in the night sky
If I go back, send me to my grave
I won't learn to behave
As a domesticated slave

Running real fast
I can feel my heart beating in my chest
No time to rest
I got a tracker on my trail
So I keep on pushing
In my mind I know I can't fail
Gotta make it to my final destination
I'm feeling hungry so I'm stealing food from the Calton Hills station
Went in the kitchen, got caught by the camp cook
I'm going back to the dormitories
'Bye, country' as I had my last look
I started crying as the shackles shook
Another file 'Abo absconded' in the police letterbook
The bullyman said, 'Hey boy, don't you sook
The missionaries will teach you how to read and write and cook
You Abos don't know what's good for you
Somewhere to sleep, a clean bed and food.'
As he tugged on the chain, he ordered me to move
I stood my ground with the point to prove
The battle of my life I can't lose
Lucky Luke: "Lots of people were caught up in massacres back in the day."

"'Send Me to My Grave' was based on my grandad's story," says the rapper. "But I know from other stories in my family and friends it could be any number of other Aboriginal people's story. I wanted to dramatise just one incident - an incident that ended in being taken back to the mission, when in reality that would have been a lucky break as lots of people were caught up in massacres back in the day."

One of the few heritage-listed sites around Mount Isa is the "hanging tree" at Moonah Creek, from which 15 Aboriginal people are said to have been hanged. It's an all-too common story.

"Send Me to My Grave" ends with a sample from the stolen generation movie Rabbit Proof Fence. Over the song's fading beats, Kenneth Branagh - playing Auber Octavius Neville - says:

Notice, if you will, the half-caste child, and there are ever increasing numbers of them. Now, what is to happen to them? Are we to allow the creation of an unwanted third race? Should the coloureds be encouraged to go back to the Black or should they be advanced to white status and be absorbed in the white population? Now, time and again I'm asked by some white man, 'If I marry this coloured person will our children be Black?’, and as Chief Protector of Aborigines it is my responsibility to accept or reject those marriages. Here is the answer: three generations — half-blood grandmother, quadroon daughter, octoroon grandson. Now, as you can see in the third generation, or third cross, no trace of native origin is apparent. The continuing infiltration of white blood finally stamps out the black colour. The Aboriginal has simply been bred out.

On the late Bob Randall's iconic stolen generation song, "Brown Skin Baby", Lucky Luke's award-winning aunt, Auriel Andrew, sang one half of the lilting duet. Lucky Luke was honoured to get her on his album.

"I am very proud of the song ‘Tomorrow’s Another Day’ with Aunty Auriel Andrew," he says. "She travelled to Mount Isa and we talked and showed her my music."

His uncle had misgivings, but Lucky Luke's mother cited another Aboriginal country music legend, Archie Roach, doing a powerful collaboration with rapper Mau Power.

"What was funny about the meeting is that Uncle Barry’s attitude was so against rap," says Lucky Luke. "Mum kept saying to them how Aunty Auriel cannot let Uncle Archie Roach do a rap song and outdo her and how she has to keep up with the times. I paid for Aunty Auriel’s studio time in Newcastle to record her chorus. After the song was completed, I got a call one day from her to tell me that when she and Uncle Barry go for a drive they put the song on and sing along and even rap along to my part. I thought that would be very funny, seeing Uncle Barry rapping. I also thought if I have converted Uncle Barry, the song must be pretty good. Aunty Auriel is one of the first Aboriginal women recording artists. The family is so proud of her. James Angus was blown away with her voice when he mastered the song."

Angus, the album's producer, was equally taken by Lucky Luke. Asked about making the record, he says: "We had a lot of fun adding sound effects and vocal samples to the songs to make them fuller. I loved how he wanted to take each song further than just vocals and instrumentals. You don't see that kind of dedication in many local artists. Lucky Luke is such an authentic person and that comes across in his music. You can definitely attribute this to the success of the project."

Angus was also taken aback by the quality of a song called "Limelight Remix" on the album. It was composed by Lucky Luke's cousin, Charlene Chermside, who makes music under the moniker Sista Girl On The Beat.

Lucky Luke says: "James commented what a high-quality beat it was and assumed that I had bought it from some big-time producer for lots of money. When I told him that my cousin made it and leased it to me and lives in Brisbane, he was shocked that he had not heard of her."

Asked about the track, Sista Girl On The Beat says: "The thing I like about Lucky Luke is he is so real - I can really relate to his lyrics - he raps about our culture and our land and our struggles as Indigenous people. If you ask me, he is the best rapper in Australia."

That strength of feeling was no doubt reinforced by the album's track "Tiddas", Lucky Luke's tribute to strong Indigenous women. It goes some way to rectifying Mount Isa's sexist image, which hit the headlines when its former mayor, John Moloney, won a Gold Ernie Award for sexism by saying: "Beauty-disadvantaged women should proceed to Mount Isa where women are outnumbered five to one. A woman can come here and transfer themselves with love and devotion in marriage from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan. It can have a complete transformation for a woman."

On "Tiddas", Lucky Luke raps:

Doesn't matter if you're hot or not
What really matters is the size of your heart

I was raised by a queen
Yeah the rock of my life
Always there for me to give me solid advice for my troubles and my woes
When I was a teenager she bought me the flashy clothes, the nikes and the polos
the fresh new kickz
But mum went without
Put the family in front of her, no doubt
In my mind, that's a definition of a queen
An unselfish act, only getting gratification
when she sees her kids excel and get that education
And if you fail, she's patiently waiting
to put you right back on track
Yeah, your mum's got your back
It's the reason who we are, the person we've become
Everything I have, it's all because my mum
taught me to navigate the storms of my life and treat everyone with respect
Never judge a book by its cover
I am what I am because of my mother
Lucky Luke: "Mum is my sounding board to the far left, giving me cultural advice, oral history advice."

"My mum and Joe Mackay, aka Joe Ave, are my executive producers," says the rapper. "Joe Ave is also my manager - he supports me and guides me based on his 10 years of experience in the Aussie Hip-Hop industry. I appreciate the solid advice I get from Joe - I know he has my back - I certainly have a lot of respect for the man. All of my songs on my album were chosen with the nod of Joe and mum. I tend to listen to both Joe and mum and I come up with an in-between compromise as to the idea and feeling I am after. At the end of the day, I write what I want, choose what I want and have the final say. Mum is my sounding board to the far left, giving me cultural advice, oral history advice."

She also influenced the quality of the music on the album, convincing Lucky Luke to pay for properly licensed beats.

"She encouraged me to write what she called a one-hit wonder and would always say, 'Who cares if you never write another one, you had a hit'," he says. "I paid for all the beats to protect my interest, just in case I did get a one-hit wonder."

It was a wise move, given the unexpected nationwide airplay and sales the album has achieved. Lucky Luke recalls the first time it was played on radio, on Triple J.

"I got a phone call from my friend to say I was on the radio and that he drove up my street playing it loud, hoping I was standing out the front," he says. "We couldn't get the radio going, so we missed it - but my friend later posted a video of my first time being on the radio. Some of my favourite reactions to the album have been watching the stats climb daily."

The rapper was so taken aback by the success of the album that, after a couple of months of watching its figures clock up, he put it online for free download, saying: "I'm not greedy."

Lucky Luke knows he is lucky. He's reminded of the fact constantly in his work at a shelter which provides culturally appropriate sobering up services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One hostel in town for Indigenous travellers takes its name from Kabalulumana, the Aboriginal guide who led prospector John Campbell Miles to the area's rich resources. The place Lucky Luke works in is called the Jimaylya Topsy Harry shelter, pairing the Kalkadoon word "jimaylya", meaning "pink waterlily", and the name of late Kalkadoon elder Grannie Topsy Harry.

"My inspiration to write comes from my life and work experiences, plus how I was brought up by my mother to always advocate for my people," says the rapper. "She would always say: 'Never look down on anyone and if you see someone in the gutter give them a helping hand, as one day you might need a helping hand.'

"I have worked in a number of different challenging positions, such as working with young children with disorders, young adults facing the court systems, alcoholic homeless people and young adults in care and control, plus care and protection. I have worked with youths and now see them coming in the adult system as homeless because the family unit has been broken down and I think I need to advocate for them because I see these problems daily. What I have learnt is that our people are in crisis."

It's a crisis that will only get worse after Abbott cut $534 million from services for Aboriginal people. Many of Mount Isa's mainstream services came about only through the work of a unionist who was the antithesis of Abbott. Pat Mackie, who led his fellow miners on a 32-week strike in 1964, was dressing like a rapper a decade before rap was invented. His Boston Red Sox cap earned him the name "Red Cap" and fitted the media's suggestions he was a foreign Communist. The former Member for Mt Isa, Tony McGrady, says Mackie helped make Mount Isa a better place.

"The conditions that people enjoy in Mount Isa today, good housing, the fact that you have a credit union, a health society and other facilities all came about because of the '64 dispute," says McGrady.

Lucky Luke: "The concept of the album is for people to pick a song they most relate to."

However in reality, says Lucky Luke, the Aboriginal people were by the 1980s still living in very poor conditions, with overcrowding on the Yallambee Reserve set up on the bed of the Leichhardt River. By 1988, brick housing was being built on the reserve with labour coming from the Aboriginal people. Today, families living in the reserve wait on the housing list to relieve the overcrowding problem that still exists in the cottages. Aboriginal people's life expectancy is still 10.6 years lower than that of the non-Indigenous population for men and 9.5 years for women.

On "Hey Dad", Lucky Luke raps about the death of his father.

"He had an accident in Mt Isa Mines and hurt his back," he says. "After his operation and his back was healed, he went back to the railway to work. He was a binge drinker and one night he was out on the town at the Switches disco and on his way home he had words to the bouncers of the nightclub to stop harassing a woman he was with. They assaulted him and broke his leg. He ended up in the Townsville hospital and a blood clot went to his heart and gave him a heart attack. He recovered from surgery but then had another massive heart attack which ended his life. I was devastated as I was just starting to build my relationship again with him."

On "Hey Dad", he raps:

Dad, where you gone?
Dad, don't fight mom
Dad, when you gonna come home?
Questions of a 12-year-old
Eight long years, my heart turned cold
Engulfed with anger
Infused with a steel mould
Couldn't believe the news
That the police told
Joseph Ronald Dargan
admitted to hospital
Due to a serious assault
Family calling saying it's not good, he won't last
Booked into surgery for triple bypass

"I followed the court case until the end, but he did not get any justice for what happened to him," says Lucky Luke. "I was very bitter about that and wanted to lash out at the cultural group that did it, but through my mum's guidance, I let it go."

His mum's guidance can be seen in everything Lucky Luke does, from his day job, to his music, to the artwork for his album showing him holding Mount Isa's stack like a didgeridoo.

"My mum and I had some very heated debates as to the album cover artwork and choice of photo," he says. "I had my friend, Norman Hadley, do a photo shoot for me. At the last moment when we were in the alleyway, I looked up and saw the stack and asked him to shoot the photo. It was the last photo of the shoot. Mum chose the photo and originally suggested to put markings on it like a didgeridoo or spear. I didn’t like the idea and went against it, but gave in to the choice of photo."

In the photo, Lucky Luke is doing the "whichway pose".

"This ancient pose is one foot up on the knee while one arm is stretched out with the hand doing different gestures," he says. "The head position focuses on looking out into the distance. This pose has been photographed and posted on social media by our people in many different locations around the world.

Lucky Luke: "When it came to choosing a name for my album, Whichway won hands down."

"When it came to choosing a name for my album, Whichway won hands down. I chose the album title because I wanted to pose a question to my listeners. To provoke thought around, 'Which way in life are you going?' The concept of the album is for people to pick a song they most relate to and that tells them where they are in their life.

"The phrase 'whichway' is not really used by mainstream Australians. It is sometimes used like a greeting when us Murri people see each other. For example, one might say 'whichway' using a body signal like a back nod of the head and a hand signal indicating to the other person have they got any money. In their response, the other person might signal back with a lateral hand movement turning the palms up, indicating that they have no money. The first person might say 'whichway' again and the second person might nod the head back and point the lip in a direction indicating he is going in a particular direction. I observed when growing up that this saying can have lots of different meanings. The saying has further evolved into today’s ‘whichway pose’."

Aboriginal people have photographed themselves doing the pose at the Sydney Opera House, on beaches, clifftops, even in front of police cars. But Lucky Luke is the most famous to do it in front of Mount Isa's smelter.

Under the smelter, Mount Isa's literally groundbreaking mining technology was funded in part by taxpayers, with research from the government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The stack can be seen from up to 40 kilometres away, looming large over the lives of the city's taxpayers. But Mount Isa's mining technology has touched lives far wider, its patents being used in mines worldwide.

Lucky Luke says when his aunt showed her young children his album's artwork, they sensed the danger.

"My sister-in-law, Tara, showed my niece and nephew the photo and told them: 'Look at Uncle Luke, tearing down the stack.' My niece, Leilani, who is four, replied: 'No, he can’t touch that volcano, because it's hot.'

"Volcano was her word for the name of the Mount Isa stack."